National Defence acknowledged earlier this week that some elements of the Trinity establishment, located behind razor wire at a Halifax naval base, have been moved as a "precaution" but also "part of prudent business planning" across the harbour to a military air base at Shearwater, N.S.
Wesley Wark, a long-time expert on security and intelligence at both the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto, described it as one of the most telling developments since Sub-Lt. Jeffery Delisle was arrested and accused of leaking secrets to a "foreign entity" — charges that could result in a sentence of life in prison.
At the same time, a defence source said "consternation and choice words" have been directed at Russia through the back channels of nations involved in signals intelligence co-operation under the United Kingdom – United States of America Agreement (UKUSA), a 65-year-old pact that counts Britain, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand among its members.
The thought that even some of Trinity's computers may have been compromised is chilling for the Canadian intelligence community, said Wark.
"What that tells me is that (Delisle) is likely not talking," said Wark. "It has to be that they are very concerned about the vulnerability of computer systems and communications systems in case Delisle — either himself or with help — managed to install certain kinds of programs, a bit like (Pte.) Bradley Manning did to siphon off material and hopefully go unnoticed."
Manning is the U.S. soldier accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to online whistleblower WikiLeaks.
Unlike the Cold War, when listening devices were the big worry, Wark said sleepless nights are caused in the intelligence community today by commercially available software that can be installed on secure work stations. The programs covertly mine data.
The fact they are "turning Trinity upside down" also indicates National Defence "thinks he's done major damage and there might also be the ancillary concern that he had (inside) help," Wark added.
"I think that's probably an extreme interpretation, but they've decided they'd better move people out of there and assign them to less sensitive files."
The focus on computers raises the spectre that the highly secret Canadian Security Establishment could be at risk. That agency, which operates at arms-length from the military and the country's spy service, provides electronic eavesdropping and communications intercepts to the federal government and allies under the UKUSA agreement.
The questions counter-intelligence officers are likely asking themselves in light of this development are pretty stark, Wark said.
"Were our coded communications compromised? Were our encryption methods — our encryption techniques, the ways in which we circulate highly classified information, within Canada and to our allies — was that stuff compromised?"
Delisle faces two counts of unlawfully passing secrets under the Security of Information Act, as well as charges of breach of trust. His Halifax lawyer recently quit and his next court date is not until Feb. 28.
The Harper government, the RCMP and the military have kept a tight lid on information and refused to answer questions on the investigation, which apparently dates back to 2007.
In addition to the speculation Delisle was passing information to Moscow, there were reports last week that Russian diplomats had been quietly expelled as a result.
Wark was skeptical. He said the Kremlin, while it routinely denies spying on anybody, likely would have responded already and tossed out Canadian diplomats in a tit-for-tat exchange.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay said last week that Canada still retained the full confidence of its allies. However relations under the ultra-secret UKUSA agreement — sometimes informally known as the five-eyes community — have sometimes been rocky.
Some academics and books have suggested that Canada was frozen out for a period of time following its 2003 refusal to participate in the Iraq war, something the federal government has never acknowledged.
The 2010 WikiLeaks scandal, involving the U.S. Army, was apparently another sore point and the revelations proved to be an extended diplomatic embarrassment for Washington.
"I'm sure the fear is that Delisle may have done something similar and may even be a copycat Bradley Manning," said Wark.