Brian Stewart: Was Canada's Delisle spying for the Russian mob?

In the four years that he supplied secrets to his Russian spymasters, Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Delisle was asked repeatedly about the Russian mob, Brian Stewart reports. But who really wanted to know these things, and why?
When he spied for Russia's military intelligence for four years, was Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Delisle also unwittingly spying for the Russian mob? (The Canadian Press)

It is sobering to discover that when our turncoat Jeffrey Delisle started selling secrets to Russian spymasters, one of his key tasks was to find out what Western intelligence knew about Russian organized crime and its links to their top politicians.

In fact, as Delisle related it to his nonplussed interrogator shortly after his arrest a year ago, his controllers in Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) had faint interest in the traditional secrets of science and technology, but loads of curiosity about our grasp of the who's who within Russia's corrupt elites.

"They were interested in organized crime and who in Russia is connect to the, you know, to the party … their political players," Delisle said in his only publicly available statement.

It was a comment that passed without being widely reported, but it is not something that should surprise anyone.

The reality of President Vladimir Putin's Russia is that all the levers of power are at least partially shared with one of the largest, richest and most ruthless organized crime cultures on Earth. This sharing very much includes the spy agencies.

As a character warns in A.D. Miller's powerful novel of Russia today, Snowdrops, the country produces no stories of politics, or business, or love. For now, "there are only crime stories."

The 'authorities'

What distinguishes Russian organized crime is its extraordinary rise since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, to the point where it has taken over much of Russia's economic life while also merging into state structures.

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A more sophisticated generation of crime bosses, known as the avtoritety (the authorities), wield enormous influence within government, all the while continuing to gorge on worldwide profits from drugs and gun running, human trafficking, extortion, bank fraud and every form of racketeering.

They have a hand in everything, from running most of the heroin trade out of Afghanistan, to attempts, recently disclosed, to fix hundreds of World Cup and European soccer matches.

Investigations by European nations suggest that the Russian state and mob are co-dependent, a virtual mafia state.

One big investigation in 2011 by Spain's organized crime prosecutor, Jose Grinda Gonzales, concluded that Russia's domestic and foreign spy services, including the GRU, "control organized crime in Russia."

Others won't go that far, but they do wonder who really calls the shots, the bureaucrats or their mobster allies.

Too murky

Mark Galeotti, professor of global affairs at New York University and a leading expert in the relationship between Russian espionage and crime, says the relationship is murky but clearly entwined.

"It's quite clear that in some cases, organized crime works as another agency, shall we say, of Russian intelligence," Galeotti says. "And at times it's clear that Russian spies end up frankly doing the dirty work for Russian gangsters."

That brings us to an overlooked question in the Delisle spy scandal.

Was his role for the GRU, at least in part, to gain the secret intel of Western security — including CSIS, the RCMP, the FBI and British intelligence — in order to protect and promote Russian criminal activities around the world?

If Russian authorities had wanted to know what the Canadians knew about certain Russian gangsters, all they would have had to do was ask Interpol or the Canadian government, who would have felt obliged to help, Galeotti notes.

"At least as likely, the Russian gangsters wanted to know what the Canadians knew about them," he suggests. "So in this respect, you actually have information that helps the underworld that is being gathered by a spy." Without being traced through any formal channels.

Computer hackers extraordinaire

To be clear, the GRU serves other political masters besides mobsters, and so Delisle was also paid to deliver vast amounts of secrets stolen from the communications of Canada and its closest allies.

Still, it looks as if Delisle was being asked for information that could help guard criminal interests and corrupt politicians from Western surveillance, or that might have proved useful leverage in Moscow's perennial power struggles.

TV image of Russian mobster Aslan Usoyan, one of country's top crime lords, who was gunned down in Moscow in January 2013. (Russia State TV / Associated Press)

The connection between the worlds of intelligence and organized crime is real, according to numerous criminology studies. And it is becoming increasingly alarming for countries that deal with Moscow, especially when the most sophisticated form of spying — cyber-espionage — is involved.

According to some watchers, many of Russia's brilliant computer hackers were recruited directly for intelligence work from large organized crime families in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Unlike most criminal fraternities, Russian ones encouraged clever young wonks early on, so long as they produce results.

Today, these young hackers are particularly feared by European and American corporations, banks, science centres and militaries because of their ability to break through secret walls.

Ron Deibert, head of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, tracks computer abuse by governments and feels Russian espionage is quite distinct.

"The Russian cybercrime underworld is extraordinarily complex and very adept," Deibert says. "What makes Russia distinctive is the exploitation of the criminal underground.

"The Putin regime is fairly described as a kleptocratic regime and there's a toleration of criminal activities that are used for political purposes or private purposes … and that extends to the cyber-criminal underground."

Canadian Sub-Lt. Delisle was a long-time intelligence officer and he would have known, when he chose the GRU to spy for, that it was not a soft organization to deal with.

He should have known what he was getting into, but in any case soon discovered he was trapped.

"And then there's no way I could have gone back," he told his interrogator, and the words pour out: "They had all my information, they had photos of me, they had a photo of my children and I knew exactly what it was for ... they imply it."

It's also interesting to note that in the later stages of his work, the GRU wanted Delisle to become "a pigeon," the term used for a spy sent around to pass on messages to other hidden spies in the network.

He became convinced there were many of them here and that Ottawa "was swarming with GRU."

The FBI would likely agree, having arrested more than 22 sleeper agents in the U.S. just in the last couple of years.

Today, there is considerable speculation in intelligence circles as to why Canada, once it had been alerted by the FBI about Delisle's treason, didn't try to turn him into a double agent to feed the GRU misleading intel and to draw secret agents into a trap. Burn some fingers, in other words.

In the end, we simply scooped Delisle up and just gave the Russian Embassy the mildest possible tap on the wrist.

Was it because we just don't do that kind of counterespionage operation? Or was it because our government has no stomach for getting into so risky an espionage duel, essentially with the Mob?