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Stranger than fiction

opinions-logo-150x150It was something straight out of a Cold War-era James Bond film: A soft-spoken naval officer betraying his country by selling top-secret intelligence to the Russians. Only, this time it wasn’t fiction. In the precedent-setting decision on Feb. 8, Patrick Curran, Nova Scotia’s Chief Judge of the Provincial Court, sentenced Canadian Sub-Lieutenant Jeffrey Paul Delisle to 20 years in prison for selling confidential military information to Russia.

On the tenth day of every month for nearly five years after he first walked into the Russian embassy in Ottawa, Delisle sold secrets to the Russians. Although the full extent of the damage remains virtually unknown, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) labeled the damage “severe and irreparable,” while Canada’s Department of National Defence assessed the security breach as “exceptionally grave.” Over the course of the two-day sentencing hearing that took place a week prior to Judge Curran’s decision, it became increasingly evident that the extent of the Canadian Forces intelligence officer’s activity, coupled with his astonishing breadth of access to state secrets, could have culminated in grave and possibly irreparable harm to our nation.

The 41-year-old naval intelligence officer pleaded guilty to one count of breach of trust, which imposes a maximum sentence of 5 years, as well as two counts of passing information to a foreign entity, an offence punishable by imprisonment for life. In doing so, Delisle became the first Canadian to be sentenced under the Security of Information Act, which came into effect in December 2001 by replacing the Official Secrets Act of 1981. The 2001 Act addresses national security concerns, namely threats of espionage by a foreign entity.

As only the second case in Canadian history to deal with passing information to a foreign entity and with no previous case law to draw on, Judge Curran selected the sentencing recommendation of Crown attorney Lyne Decarie over defence attorney Mike Taylor’s recommendation of 10 years. He gave Delisle credit for time served in custody since his arrest in January of 2012. In his 40-minute-long sentencing, Judge Curran referred to the disgraced officer as a traitor, who “coldly and rationally” offered his services to the Russians, receiving 23 payments amounting to $71,817 over a nearly five-year period starting in 2007. In addition to his sentence, Delisle was fined $111,817, which includes all of the payments he received from his Russian contacts as well as extra funds he had received for future work just prior to his arrest last year. Judge Curran also ordered Delisle to pay the fine within 20 years or face another two years in prison.

Over the two-day sentencing hearing before Judge Curran’s final decision, Crown attorney Decarie argued that Delisle had caused irrevocable and severe damage to Canada’s position in the international intelligence-sharing network.  This damage could have harmed our nation’s relationship with the United States as well as with the ‘Five Eyes’, an international intelligence community that includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Crown argued that the security breach could have long-lasting effects on our ability to obtain pertinent intelligence, especially since Canada relies heavily on our allies as intelligence importers. The Crown suggested that the sentence should be as much of a deterrent to others as it is a punishment for Delisle.

Although the Crown’s expert witnesses posited that the extent of the damage could weaken Canada’s standing within the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing community, Judge Curran astutely reiterated the defence’s argument that other states within the Five Eyes have been compromised at one time or another by a Delisle-style betrayal with no real effect to any bilateral or multilateral security alliance. In addition, the defence explained that the extent of the damage is unknown, discrediting both of the Crown’s expert witnesses for having no real information as to the true extent of the damage Delisle’s espionage has inflicted on our nation’s security. The defence concluded that in conjunction with the lack of empirical evidence to back up the claims of “grave” and “irreparable” harm, Canada’s standing within the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing community will remain secure

The defence said after the sentencing that his client was in “shock.” Taylor continued, “it’s a significant sentence that he received, one that, quite frankly, I don’t think he was really expecting.” Taylor showed disappointment that Judge Curran ignored his argument that the Crown had failed to show the true extent of the damage inflicted on the country. After all, there is no record of what exactly Delisle sold to the GRU, Russia’s largest foreign intelligence agency.

When asked post-sentencing if she thinks Canadians will be content with the sentence, Crown attorney Decarie said, “I hope so.” However, the response has been much more negative than the Crown had expected. Many commenters on major news sites such as The Globe and Mail and CBC have suggested that Delisle deserves capital punishment, something that obviously is not done in Canada.

In the eyes of Canadians, as well as people from all over the world, betraying one’s country is arguably one of the most heinous crimes thinkable. In explaining his reasoning for the sentence, Judge Curran concluded, “the purpose of sentencing is to impose sanctions on those who violate laws, but also to deter others from doing the same.” Delisle’s sentence may ultimately deter some individuals from going down the same road, but espionage is something that is not going away any time soon. The best thing we can do is continue to watch Bond films and hope that the fiction we see on the screen remains there. Although we are currently unaware of the as to the full extent of the treachery, if it turns out that someone’s life, liberty or security as outlined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been placed at risk because of what Delisle has done, then maybe in this case, the punishment does not fit the crime.


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