“Spy, Russians, Secrets, Sold”

In the Jeffrey Delisle affair, one thing is certain: baffling incompetence on all sides

Spy … Russians … secrets … sold … These jumbled linguistic fragments now define the life of ex–sub-lieutenant Jeffrey Delisle, recently sentenced to a 20-year jail term. Delisle was the first Canadian spy case of the new century, joining a short list of major cases from the previous one, headlined by the defection of Igor Gouzenko. Delisle was the first man to be tried and convicted under Canada’s refurbished official secrets act (the Security of Information Act, passed in 2001), and a record holder for length of his sentence. He did damage, the extent of which we may never know. But, ultimately, the Delisle spy case will be remembered for its sheer oddity. As the jail door closes on Jeffrey Delisle, we are left with a spy case transformed into an unsolved mystery. Nothing about it quite adds up, or meets our expectations of what an espionage operation should look like.

What follows is an effort to reshape the Delisle narrative, based on court records. But a word of caution. Spy stories resist exposure, are never complete, are subject to manipulation and are often folded into a popular culture outlook that can be highly mythological.


Jeffrey Delisle, age 41 at the time of his sentencing in early 2013, was a self-confessed spy for the Russians, specifically for a branch of Russian intelligence called the GRU (Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoe Upravleniye, meaning “Russian military intelligence”), whose history and exploits date back to the time of the Russian revolution. But what kind of spy was Jeffrey Delisle? He certainly does not fit the current and disconcerting mould of people who engage in espionage out of what the U.S. intelligence community calls “divided loyalties.” He had no loyalty to Russia, was not born there and never visited the country. He did not carry a picture of Vladimir Putin in his wallet—only pictures of his kids.

As for his motives, all we know is what he told his RCMP interrogator. He said he had decided in 2007 to commit what he called “professional suicide.” He may well be the first spy on record to have engaged in espionage as a form of suicide. He believed his life had been ruined by the break-up of his marriage to his high school sweetheart, whom he had caught having an affair not once but twice. He contemplated more literal forms of suicide, but drew back from them, so he says, out of concerns for his children. In committing professional suicide, Delisle became a fatalistic spy, certain that he would be caught one day. When that day drew near, he made no attempt to act on his escape plan provided by the Russians. He just waited for the knock on the door. The knock came, ironically, as he was about to embark on a new life with a new partner.


If Delisle’s own motives for becoming a spy read as outlandish, they also clearly puzzled his Russian spy masters. Spy services like to know who they are dealing with when it comes to stealing secrets. They want either surety about motive or at least a good, strong handle on any agent—such as that provided by money, or fear of exposure, or manipulation of some character weakness. When pressed, Delisle apparently told the GRU that he was acting for “ideological” reasons, something that would have scared them.

The few things we know about the Russian handling of their volunteer spy add to the oddity of the Delisle affair. Incredibly, the GRU was uninterested in some of the best stuff Delisle could have provided, particularly in the technical and scientific fields, including information on how Canada and its allies protect coded communications. This puzzled Delisle, as well it might. The GRU also asked him for information that he had no access to, their obsession being with western intelligence services’ efforts to penetrate Russian operations, all very Putin-esque. They asked him to supply information on Canadian knowledge of Russian organized crime and about Canadian energy deals abroad—hardly his bailiwick as a military intelligence analyst. The Russians did not try to get him to recruit others, or change positions with the Canadian military. They did not press too hard to arrange face-to-face meetings with him.

The Russians wanted him, but did not fully exploit him. Either they wanted him for later or did not know how to fully exploit him, or did not fully trust him, or maybe (a dark thought) had even better spies and sources in their North American roster. Delisle did claim that he came to be aware of a large apparatus of Russian spying in Canada and that, as unlikely as this sounds, the Russians were grooming him for a job as a liaison or go-between (“pigeon”) to connect their many operatives in Canada. That plan, if a real plan it was, was put on ice by his arrest.


We should not be fooled by Jeffrey Delisle’s relatively low rank and lacklustre career. What matters when it comes to spying is not gold braid, but access to secrets, and Delisle had access in spades. He had a top secret clearance, obtained before he began spying for the Russians in 2007 (his first Russian paycheque arrived in July). The next scheduled round of his security clearance was inexplicably delayed by the Department of National Defence; that round should have happened in 2011, but did not. Government witnesses at his sentencing hearing provided lame excuses, but no explanations.
Delisle had untrammelled access to some of the most sensitive intelligence databases available in Canada, ones that featured both Canadian and allied material. He found it ludicrously easy to copy data and take it out of the office with him. He had no need for the spy gear of old, no Minox camera secreted in his uniform pocket. No late-night, after-hours sessions huddled over a desk sweating over page-by-page illegal photography. All he needed was a simple USB key. As he explained to his bemused RCMP interrogator, he was able to download selected files from his top secret intelligence systems onto floppy disks (yes, floppy disks—a hint of the obsolescence that defined computer security at his DND workplace), transfer these disks to a non-secret computer system, download information from the non-secret computer onto a USB stick, put it in his pocket and go home.

Never once in his four-year spying career was Delisle searched. Never once, so it would appear, were any questions asked about a computer set-up that allowed the strictly forbidden—the copying of data from top secret systems. Only after he was caught was his workplace, a naval intelligence fusion centre in Halifax called HMCS Trinity, unplugged. To add to the mundanity of it all, when Delisle was finished with his USB keys, where did they go? To his kids, for use with their Xbox.

Jeffrey Delisle’s career in stealing secrets was aided and abetted by a security system that failed, and failed abysmally, at every possible level. Delisle was caught, not by any trip-wire Canadian security measure, but by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, which alerted a badly startled Canadian system to its detailed suspicions of Delisle in December 2011. Only at that point did the RCMP begin an investigation, which was delayed three weeks before a search warrant was acquired. Once the RCMP had a search warrant, their investigation was impeccable. They pulled incriminating evidence from Delisle’s home and work computers and when they confronted Delisle with this evidence, he quickly confessed.

But even in the RCMP investigation of Delisle there is an oddity that has gone unremarked in media stories. In their effort to nail the case, the RCMP engaged in a bold and risky manoeuvre. They put up messages on the shared website that Delisle used, pretending to be his Russian handler. This was risky because there was always the possibility that Delisle might become suspicious, particularly if the language, timing or demands of an RCMP message failed to ring true. In the end the boldness and risk paid off, and Delisle apparently suspected nothing.

But in intervening clandestinely in Delisle’s message traffic, the RCMP and possibly other agencies of the Canadian intelligence system appeared oblivious to a much greater strategic game. No effort was ever made to bring Delisle under control and turn him against the Russian spy service, either to feed them false information or to gain additional insights into the Russian spy system in Canada and elsewhere. Turning Delisle into a double agent (or maybe a triple, depending on how you count) would have been audacious, but appears never to have tempted anyone in the Canadian system, despite the potential benefits. Were we simply risk-averse, or unaware, or forgetful of the long history of such deception operations in World War Two and the Cold War? Who can say? It is just odd.

Once Delisle had decided to plead guilty, all that was left was his sentencing. But even the sentencing end-game was somewhat strange, not only because there was no legal precedent in Canadian jurisprudence, but because, at the end of the day, no one could say with any authority just how much damage his spying had done. The two parties with real knowledge of the damage were not talking—the Russians naturally silent on the matter, Delisle not talking because no plea bargain had been extended to him. This was again odd, as only with Delisle’s cooperation could the Canadian authorities have had any chance of really discovering what secrets the spy had divulged. All they had to go on was one intercepted package of documents from January 2012, twelve in number, which never reached the GRU. Whether this package was anomalous or typical, no one could say. The harm it did was, of course, purely theoretical. The document package was introduced in court, but its contents were entirely blacked out.

We do not know, and may never know, whether Delisle stole the intelligence equivalent of candy or Fort Knox. All we know for certain is that Canada’s intelligence partners, led by the United States, were aroused to anger by the security breaches revealed by the Delisle case and, in unprecedented fashion, have demanded that Canada clean up its act or face possible expulsion from the world’s leading intelligence club called the “Five Eyes” (a club in which we are more or less a charter member since World War Two). It might also be worth noting that neither Canada, spied upon, nor Russia, doing the spying, seemed moved enough about the Delisle affair to make it a point of diplomatic friction. Odd, that. Accuse the Chinese of spying and you would get a very different reaction. Nor would many victim states approach a public case of espionage with as much—equanimity, shall we call it?—as shown by the Canadian government.


Jeffrey Delilse sold secrets to the Russians between 2007 and 2011. He was paid US$71,817 for his reporting from July 2007 to August 2011, and then was suddenly offered an additional sum of $50,000 during a once-only overseas trip, to Brazil in September 2011, to meet face to face with a GRU officer. Delisle claimed never to have been motivated by the money and he knew a lump-sum $50,000 could get him into trouble if he brought it back to Canada, but he tried it anyway. It nearly led to his downfall.

Upon his return from his brief Brazil trip, Jeffrey Delisle was subjected to secondary examination by a Canada Border Services Agency officer at Halifax airport. It does not appear as though the CBSA officer was tipped off about Delisle in advance; he just had a suspicious nose. Delisle was not able to sell his thin cover story about having taken a Brazil trip on a whim and about his cash hoard being a product of success at gambling and online gaming. Among the many inconsistencies noted by the CBSA officer was that Delisle had gone to Brazil for a holiday, but came back without a tan. Perhaps this was a good-sense judgement, or just the envy of a Haligonian airport security officer with the summer behind him and a blustery fall ahead. A report was duly sent in on Delisle, but appears to have vanished in the system. Odd.

The GRU was sufficiently alarmed by the airport investigation to suggest to Delisle that he take a “sabbatical” until things cooled off. Delisle, the fatalistic spy, declined. He resumed his spying. In December 2011, the FBI stepped out of the shadows to tell the Canadian government that Delisle was burrowing into secrets, the RCMP awoke and investigated, and jail opened its narrow doors to swallow up this strangest of spies.

The moniker “the spy who had no tan” perhaps sums up all the oddities of the Delisle case. He did not behave as a textbook spy should do. His Russian spy masters also did not behave as we might have expected. The Canadian security system failed to perform as it should have done and was only rescued from further leakages by the FBI. When confronted by the opportunity to turn Delisle back against the Russians, the Canadians turned a blind eye, never once tempted from the straight and narrow of a nice criminal prosecution. Only our allies reacted predictably, with behind-the-scenes anger and dismay when the Delisle case came to light.

Spies do not have tans. They are unpredictable creatures, who operate in the shadows, for shadowy motives. There is no textbook spy and the efforts of counter-intelligence agencies to create profiles, once summed up under the acronym MICE (money, ideology, corruption, ego), to understand the behaviour of those who would steal secrets and sell them to a foreign power look laughably simplistic. You do not catch spies by profiling them; you only catch them at their work, something that the Canadian government failed in this case to do. The Delisle case might have had whiffs of the old-fashioned, brought to us by the same spy service that gave us Igor Gouzenko in 1945. But he was also a cyber spy and, in a new age of cyber espionage, catching spying at work, devilling in computer systems, is going to be the demand.