Inside the CSIS probe that identified a Canadian mole who spied for Moscow

·7 min read

OTTAWA — An investigation by Canada's spy service concluded that money, ego and career frustrations were the likely reasons a veteran RCMP officer passed highly sensitive secrets to Russian intelligence for years, newly disclosed records reveal.

Molehunters determined in the mid-1980s that Gilles Germain Brunet was an agent of the Soviet KGB from the late 1960s well into the 1970s, a Cold War spy saga detailed in documents released to The Canadian Press by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service through the Access to Information Act.

Brunet's betrayal has long been the subject of whispers, chronicled in news articles and books since at least the early 1990s. But until now Canadian intelligence officials have not publicly confirmed his exploits, nor divulged details of the probe that left them convinced he was a mole.

The hard-drinking, high-living Brunet died of an apparent heart attack at age 49 on April 9, 1984, just as investigators were closing in.

The Canadian Press complained to the federal information commissioner's office in 2015 after CSIS initially declined to release the Brunet records under the access law. Six years later, the intelligence service agreed to disclose hundreds of pages, though some of the documents are heavily censored.

A top secret CSIS report sent by hand in November 1987 to John Tait, then deputy solicitor general, says the probe was triggered by an August 1982 tip to the RCMP Security Service, the forerunner of CSIS, that a member had been recruited by the KGB.

An RCMP review of operational case files involving the Soviets from 1967 to 1973 did not yield any leads that might identify the agent. An examination of hundreds of personnel files and interviews with members also turned up nothing concrete.

Even so, Brunet was considered a "prime suspect," says the CSIS report. "As a result, the in-depth investigation was carried out as much with the intent to prove his innocence as it was to determine the identity of the recruited KGB agent within the Service."

Brunet joined the RCMP in 1955 after a stint in the military. He left the force and worked for an insurance company for a couple of years, but returned and spent much of the 1960s in Ottawa with the Security Service. His father, Josaphat Brunet, had led the RCMP's security branch for a time in the 1950s.

The younger Brunet did well in a Russian language course in 1967. But he had marital problems and ran up debt. In 1968 he transferred to Montreal, continuing to work on security files. He was dismissed from the force in 1973 for refusing to break ties with someone alleged to have underworld connections.

Brunet went into the private security business and later sold prearranged funeral packages.

He was considered intelligent, aggressive and ambitious but also "avaricious, vindictive and devoid of morals," the internal records say. "When it suited his purposes, he was extremely outgoing and gregarious. He played 'hard' and was a heavy drinker."

By December 1983, one security investigator digging into Brunet's past believed the Mounties had their man.

First, no Soviet case of which Brunet was aware ever came to a successful conclusion, even though there were operational successes in other areas of the country during the period in question.

Second, in each case the molehunters were able to document, "operations died immediately upon Brunet learning of them," says the investigator's memo.

"It appears that not only was Brunet compromised, but that he was so committed that he gave his Soviet handlers everything he got his hands on."

Subsequent investigations included numerous interviews with active and retired members of the Security Service as well as acquaintances and contacts.

Several sources who spoke to officers were not surprised that Brunet — now given the code name Notebook — was a top suspect, as they said he not only had a grudge against the RCMP but also "lacked character and his loyalty was questionable," says the CSIS report.

Investigators highlighted two key incidents that emerged from their queries.

An envelope with $960 in crisp $20 bills had been discovered in the glove compartment of Brunet's car in 1968, a time when he was having financial difficulties and his annual salary was less than $10,000. There was no satisfactory explanation.

A former employee of a bar at Ottawa's Skyline Hotel who was asked to look at photographs left investigators convinced that Brunet had met there more than once with an individual of concern whose name has been excised from the CSIS records. All signs point to this being Brunet's KGB liaison.

By February 1984, the sleuths had found Brunet's current address in Montreal near Mount Royal, obtaining aerial photographs of the area and noting his home was within sight of the Soviet consulate.

The RCMP tailed Brunet for several days in early April 1984, clandestinely observing his visits to the dry cleaners, a grocery store and, on the day before his death, a pizzeria.

His grave marker at a Montreal cemetery depicts a beach scene in Acapulco, Mexico — a favourite destination — and a martini glass.

The year Brunet died, the newly created CSIS, a civilian agency, took over intelligence duties from the RCMP Security Service, disbanded after a string of scandals that prompted a commission of inquiry.

CSIS pushed on with the Brunet probe, advanced by additional information received in 1985 or early 1986. Although details were stripped from the records, this tip — like the one in 1982 — is believed to have come from a Soviet defector.

Investigators sifted through the evidence and interviewed more people, apparently not ruling out other suspects. The spy service executed warrants to obtain extensive records detailing the banking transactions of Brunet, now assigned the new code name Coach.

The 1987 CSIS report to Tait plainly states the spy service "is satisfied" that Brunet was the agent recruited by Soviet intelligence.

CSIS also concluded that Brunet's contact with former colleagues had meant his "services for the KGB did not end with his dismissal from the Security Service in 1973."

In August 1986, CSIS began assessing the damage caused by Brunet.

A paper prepared for a 1998 conference by Peter Marwitz, a retired member of the Security Service and CSIS, suggested Brunet had revealed the location of listening devices planted at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa and betrayed the activities of a Canadian military attaché stationed in Moscow. Brunet reaped a total of more than $700,000 from the KGB, the paper said.

At the time, a CSIS spokeswoman called Marwitz's research "speculation."

A number of the investigators who worked on the Brunet case have died or do not want to discuss the file.

The CSIS report to Tait says that only Brunet could reveal his true motivation, but suggests it was a combination of financial gain, ego, career frustrations and the mole's opinion "that the Security Service was too small a pawn in a large game."

Brunet was constantly reminded that his father reached high levels within the RCMP and felt his own progress was stalled due to lack of recognition of his expertise, the report adds.

Although Brunet's dealings with the KGB went undetected during his time with the RCMP, the force did hunt for a suspected mole, prompting the departure of civilian counter-intelligence official Leslie James Bennett. In 1993, the federal government exonerated Bennett, who had moved to Australia, and paid him compensation.

The CSIS records say in hindsight it might be argued that suspicions of Brunet's treachery "should have been aroused to a marked degree" earlier since he had emerged in 1978 as a prime suspect in an internal probe concerning leaks of classified information from the Security Service.

But it seems Brunet was a puzzle. One memo sums him up as "a very private person," noting even those who worked and socialized with him for years "claim that they do not know him."

CSIS spokesman John Townsend said he could not elaborate on the records released through Access to Information.

"This case, however, is a clear example of how Canada has historically been targeted by hostile threat actors and yet another example of the risks associated with the insider threat," he said. "Canada clearly was and remains an attractive target for espionage."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2021.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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