Canada evicts Russians after spy incident

Pro-forma response does not deeply wound relations

By A Contributor

Dale R. Herspring Contributing Writer

Canada, which in recent weeks has been attuned to President Barack Obama’s plans for the Keystone pipeline, has been forced to focus on another part of state-to-state relations — spying. If nothing else, this demonstrates that the spying game isn’t just played by the “big boys,” —  the United States and Russia — are wrong. Second-tier powers such as Canada are also inviting targets.

A central question in spying is what impact a case will have on two countries’ relations. Will it freeze relations ; will the country being spied upon withdraw its ambassador? Expel other diplomats? The answer depends to a large degree on the relations of the countries. If they are good, little or nothing will be said. If the country spied upon wants to minimize the impact of such incidents, the spies’ handlers will be sent home. If, however, the country spied upon wants to make something out of a spying incident, then at a minimum the offense will be widely publicized.  This leads us to the case in point.

Here is what happened.  A 40-year-old Canadian Navy officer, a sub-lieutenant (the equivalent of a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army or ensign in the Navy) who was a specialist in intelligence, was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which handles such matters.  He is the first person charged under a 2001 law, the Security of Information Act. He was charged with criminal breach of trust and communicating “to a foreign entity information that the government of Canada is taking measures to safeguard.” 

Sub-lt. Jeffrey Paul Delisle’s suspicious activities came to light four years ago.  The lengthy investigation permitted the RCMP to build an airtight case.  The Canadian media say Delisle was the kind of person who easily blended into to background.  Delisle appears to have enlisted in the military and was later commissioned as an officer. The fact that he is   still a very junior officer could suggest mediocre performance and perhaps a need for money.

Still, he worked in a number of sensitive posts. Those included the clearing house for military intelligence at the headquarters of the Department of National Defense in Ottawa as well as at the main operational planning unit in Kingston. Since August 2011, he served at HMCS Trinity in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This is a highly secure facility that handles communications with ships at sea. In addition to providing information about the activities of Canadian and other ships, he could have compromised the codes of allied nations that communicate with the facility.

From Canadian’s standpoint, the most damaging aspect of this is that Ottawa is heavily dependent on its allies. This is true even though the Canadian military has grown and modernized significantly in recent years.  If other countries, especially the United States, were to decide that they could not trust Canada with sensitive information, Ottawa could find itself on the outside looking in. I suspect that the RCMP shared this information with the appropriate U.S. intelligence agency before Delisle’s arrest. Indeed, according to the Ministry of Defense, once Canada recognized that it had a spy in its midst, it fed false information to the Russians so they wouldn’t know the real situation.  I have no doubt that CIA or FBI officials were fully briefed on the incident, including what information was compromised.

Back to diplomacy.  On Jan. 18, it was announced that a number of Russian Embassy officials were expelled from Canada. Moscow strongly denied the charges.  “We are surprised by reports in the Canadian press about the expulsions of Russian diplomats since they left the country in 2011 after completing their postings.”

What a wonderful way to avoid a major diplomatic incident. Moscow said the officials’ return to Russia was normal, and it may have been. Ottawa may have selected individuals for expulsion who were about to leave anyway. Ottawa sounded tough and the Russians went home (and admitted their guilt —  unofficially). Russia did not have to expel any Canadian diplomats because the Russians said their own diplomats had not been expelled. Bilateral relations are intact. The only person left hanging is Delisle, who faces life in a Canadian jail.

Dale R. Herspring, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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