Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Delisle's surprise guilty plea yesterday means that not only will highly classified intelligence be kept out of the courts, but it now may never be known why the leaks were undetected.
Delisle, a naval officer stationed in Halifax, pleaded guilty in Nova Scotia Provincial Court to communicating safeguarded information and breach of trust.
"Can you imagine how many sighs of relief are being breathed in the corridors of Ottawa?" said intelligence expert Wesley Wark of the Munk Centre for International Studies. "This would have been a complicated long-running case with lots of diplomatic embarrassment."
The techniques Delisle used were antiquated in terms of today's cyberworld sophistication. "A floppy disk, for God's sake", says Wark, and a USB key were the means of transporting information out of HMCS Trinity, an intelligence facility at the naval dockyard on Halifax's waterfront.
"Co-workers in sensitive areas are meant to keep an eye on each other. If they spot something they consider a bit fishy, then they are supposed to be part of the security web. It sounds like it was a security breakdown at potentially many, many different levels," according to Wark.
Information presented at Delisle's bail hearing detailed how Delisle would browse for material on the secure computer at Trinity, save it in the notepad feature, then transfer it to a floppy disk drive. He would take the floppy out of the secure computer, transfer it to an unsecure system and make a USB copy. After taking the USB home, he would access an email account given to him by the Russians and write in drafts. None of the material was ever transmitted, but the Russians could access the account and read the drafts.
Christian Leuprecht, a security expert at Queen's University and the Royal Military College, says the case shows that espionage isn't all about hacking. "You can't steal anything and everything just on the internet. This suggests that human intelligence continues to play an important role and these of course are highly classified networks with which Sub-Lt. Delisle was working, and so he was likely to deliver significant information that the Russians would have had a difficult time obtaining by other means."
At his bail hearing last March it was revealed that Delisle received top security clearance in 1998, but it's not clear if he was ever required to take a lie detector test.
Wark says that it seems Canada didn't learn from the American experience with army private Bradley Manning. Manning copied hundreds of thousands of diplomatic notes as well as Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, and then leaked them to WikiLeaks. "In the aftermath of that, the Americans had been warning all their allies, don't get caught out in the way we did, don't let someone steal information in the way Bradley Manning has done."
In the wake of Manning's arrest, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to strengthen his government's computer security policies for all federal agencies.
Wark also points out that the other members of the "Five Eyes", the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, might have reason to be upset by Delisle's spying. "What Delisle might have been able to tell the Russians that's very, very damaging is how the communications systems themselves worked and the codes and processes they used to protect secrets. If the Russians have that, it's a huge advantage for them, it's a key into communications systems of not just Canada but all of our allies."
It's not known what information Delisle shovelled to the Russians, and even he may not remember since he wrote over each previous email draft as he sent a new one, but court information suggests the Russians were most interested in Russian mafia activity within Canada and its "Five Eyes" allies.
Wark isn't sure he buys that explanation and speculates on what he calls a "false flag" operation. "You entrap someone and have them pass what they think is relatively innocent information in the first instance and then once you've got them in their trap then you get them to give you information that you really want to know."
In Ottawa, both Foreign Affairs and Public Safety refused to comment on the case, citing national security.
Liberal defence critic John McKay told the CBC he was surprised how "pedestrian" the story is. "How could the military not know from 2007 to 2010 this man was receiving 3,000 dollars a month [from the Russians]? How could they not know he was having marital problems?"
Jack Harris, the NDP's defence critic told the CBC: "Canadians need to know how a Canadian naval officer could walk in and out of one of the most secure places in Canada, Trinity, with a thumb drive. You can't walk out of a diamond mine with diamonds in your pocket."