Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Delisle arrives at Nova Scotia provincial court for a sentencing hearing in Halifax on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Delisle arrives at Nova Scotia provincial court for a sentencing hearing in Halifax on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Canada’s spy-catching system caused delay, angst in Delisle case: former FBI official

The RCMP arrested Delisle, a junior navy officer, on Jan. 13, 2012, for violating the Security of Information Act

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s former head of counter-intelligence says it fell to him to tell the RCMP about a spy in the Canadian navy, even though the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was already well aware of Jeffrey Delisle’s sale of sensitive secrets to the Russians.

In a newly published book, Frank Figliuzzi casts a critical eye on the Delisle case, pointing to the episode as a prime illustration of systemic problems with how Canadian agencies investigate espionage.

As a sub-lieutenant at the Trinity intelligence centre in Halifax, Delisle had access to a databank of classified secrets shared by the Five Eyes community — Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

The RCMP arrested Delisle, a junior navy officer, on Jan. 13, 2012, for violating the Security of Information Act. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Delisle had given secret material to Russia in exchange for upward of $110,000 over more than four years.

The official story detailed in court records suggested the FBI tipped Canadian authorities to Delisle’s relationship with the Russians on Dec. 2, 2011, through a letter to the RCMP.

However, as The Canadian Press reported in May 2013, the story actually began months earlier.

Senior CSIS officials were called to Washington, where U.S. security personnel told them a navy officer in Halifax was receiving cash transfers from Russian agents. The Canadian spy service soon got court approval to begin electronic surveillance of Delisle.

“The United States and its allies were hemorrhaging our most sensitive Russian reporting for as long as five years. As soon as we learned of Delisle, we knew we had to tell the Canadians and stop this guy. Easy, right?” Figliuzzi writes in “The FBI Way: Inside the Bureau’s Code of Excellence.”

“Not so much. Not when dealing with a system that’s so very different from ours,” the book says.

“The problem arose when it came time for someone to put Delisle in handcuffs.”

CSIS watched Delisle pass top-secret information to Russia for months without briefing the RCMP. The spy agency, acting on legal advice, opted to keep its investigation sealed for fear of exposing sources and methods of the intelligence trade in open court proceedings.

“Someone had to call Canada’s cops. Strangely, that task went to me,” says Figliuzzi, who led the FBI’s counter-intelligence division as an assistant director.

“I wrote a simple letter on FBI stationery to the RCMP explaining that Jeffrey Delisle was a spy. I flew up to Ottawa and sat in a conference room with RCMP officials and verbally briefed the Mounties. Now the RCMP had to start their own investigation to be used in court,” he recalls in the book.

“Again, the cycle started from scratch, all while Delisle continued to spill everyone’s secrets to the Russians. This was taking so long that we considered luring Delisle into the United States so we could arrest him on our own charges.”

READ MORE: Russian spy case documents missing or destroyed, Canada’s info watchdog finds

Figliuzzi says Bob Mueller, FBI director at the time, even placed a call to his counterparts in Canada and “torqued up the pressure for someone to put an end to the madness. The end couldn’t come fast enough.”

CSIS was created in 1984 after a series of scandals led to dissolution of the fabled RCMP Security Service. The new civilian spy service would gather information and tell the federal government of threats from suspected spies and terrorists, but would have no arrest powers.

CSIS must hand over a case to the RCMP or work in parallel with the Mounties, then pass along the file when it comes time to take suspected spies or terrorists into custody.

“Next time you hear someone suggest the FBI should be split, you have my permission to tell them the Delisle story,” writes Figliuzzi, who retired from the FBI in 2012.

Canada should rethink the way it approaches counter-intelligence probes, Figliuzzi said in an interview.

“I thought that from Day 1 with Delisle, and my position on that hasn’t hasn’t changed. And I think it can be done with civil liberties still remaining paramount,” he said.

Authorities don’t have the luxury of time for different agencies to independently develop the same information because their protocols and regulations require that they not share with each other, Figliuzzi said.

“The bad guys don’t respect our rules and our protocols. And in fact, they learn to exploit them quite skilfully. And this is an age that requires a swift response to breaking threats.”

To this day, the Delisle case remains the worst breach of Canadian secrets in the post-Cold War world, said Wesley Wark, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa and a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

“There has never been any public accounting of the handling by Canadian authorities of the counter-intelligence investigation.”

The RCMP mounted a crash investigation in the navy spy case over the December 2011 holidays, he noted. “But how much time was lost, and how many secrets, before the Mounties put the cuffs on Delisle?”

The RCMP did not respond to a request for comment.

CSIS cannot discuss the Delisle case beyond what was presented in court, said John Townsend, a spokesman for the intelligence service.

But he said that disclosing sensitive information could limit CSIS’s ability to protect and recruit human sources. Moreover, it could significantly affect the service’s relationship with partners and reveal its covert methods.

“Protecting CSIS information from disclosure means it cannot be relied upon to support a particular case, decision or action,” Townsend said. “In some cases, this could lead to the staying of criminal charges, settlements in civil litigation and the reversal of administrative decisions.”

CSIS works with the RCMP through the “One Vision” framework, which guides how the agencies collaborate on security cases.

Over the last decade, CSIS and the RCMP have worked to improve the framework, Townsend said. This has allowed each agency to maintain appropriate separation between respective investigations “while ensuring a functional operational relationship.”

Federal agencies face challenges when attempting to use intelligence in a form that is admissible as evidence, said Mary-Liz Power, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair.

“This is a long-standing issue considering that an accused individual cannot be tried based on evidence that cannot be disclosed to them in some fashion.”

CSIS, the RCMP and the Department of Justice are constantly working together to improve their intelligence gathering and on addressing national security threats, Power said.

“By breaking down the silos that come to exist over time, the government is confident it will avoid future roadblocks and better manage litigation.”

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

spy agencies

Just Posted

(File photo from The Canadian Press)
Red Deer down to 66 active COVID-19 cases

Red Deer has lowest number of active cases since last November

Orange shirts, shoes, flowers and messages are displayed on the steps outside the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 following a ceremony hosted by the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations in honour of the 215 residential school children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility in Kamloops, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Alberta city cancels Canada Day fireworks at site of former residential school

City of St. Albert says that the are where the display was planned, is the site of the former Youville Residential School

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

The Government of Alberta identified 115 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, bringing the provincial total to 3,089.
(Black Press file photo)
Alberta reports 100 new cases of COVID-19

The Central zone sits at 218 active cases

The Government of Alberta identified 115 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, bringing the provincial total to 3,089.
(Black Press file photo)
Red Deer drops to 71 active cases of COVID-19

Province adds 127 new cases of the virus

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
VIDEO: Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2020, file photo, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta. Nassib on Monday, June 21, 2021, became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Nassib announced the news on Instagram, saying he was not doing it for the attention but because “I just think that representation and visibility are so important.” (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay

More than a dozen NFL players have come out as gay after their careers were over

A pair of Alberta residents were arrested after police responded to a report of a woman who had allegedly been assaulted and confined against her will on June 20, 2021. (File photo)
Salmon Arm RCMP arrest 2 Albertans suspected in alleged assault, unlawful confinement

Firearms, stolen items seized including NHL hockey cards believed to be worth thousands

A man makes his way past signage to a mass COVID-19 vaccination centre at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont., on Monday, May 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Canadians encouraged to see mRNA shots as interchangeable as more 2nd doses open up

Doctors urge people not to hesitate if offered Moderna after getting Pfizer for their first shot

Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance sits in the front row during a news conference in Ottawa on June 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Defence committee rises without report on Vance allegations

Committee had been investigating the government’s handling of complaints against former defence chief

Tl’etinqox-lead ceremony at the site of the former St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake, B.C., June 18, 2021. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
‘We are all one people’: Honouring residential school victims and survivors

Love, support and curiousity: Canadians urged to learn about residential schools and their impact

Indigenous rights and climate activists gathered outside Liberty Mutual’s office in Vancouver to pressure the insurance giant to stop covering Trans Mountain. (Photo by Andrew Larigakis)
Activists work to ensure Trans Mountain won’t get insurance

Global campaign urging insurance providers to stay away from Canadian pipeline project

Investigators use a bucket to help recover human remains at a home burned in the Camp fire, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Magalia, Calif. Many of the missing in the deadly Northern California wildfire are elderly residents in Magalia, a forested town of about 11,000 north of the destroyed town of Paradise. (AP Photo/John Locher)
‘Forever War’ with fire has California battling forests instead

Five of the state’s largest-ever blazes seared California last year, as authorities tackle prevention

Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto and IOC President Thomas Bach, on a screen, speak during a five=party online meeting at Harumi Island Triton Square Tower Y in Tokyo Monday, June 21, 2021. The Tokyo Olympics will allow some local fans to attend when the games open in just over a month, Tokyo organizing committee officials and the IOC said on Monday. (Rodrigo Reyes Marin/Pool Photo via AP)
Tokyo Olympics to allow Japanese fans only, with strict limits

Organizers set a limit of 50% capacity — up to a maximum of 10,000 fans

Most Read