11/30/2012 05:01 EST | Updated 01/29/2013 05:12 EST

Critics Ask Why Canada Learned About Spy From U.S.

CORRECTS RANK TO SUB-LT., NOT LT. - Former Canadian Navy intelligence officer Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Paul Delisle, left, leaves provincial court after pleading guilty to to three espionage charges related to communicating information to a foreign entity, before his preliminary hearing on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Delisle was charged in January with breach of trust and two charges of passing information to an unnamed foreign entity that could harm Canada's interests. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Andrew Vaughan)
The news that Sub-Lt Jeffrey Delisle, the Canadian naval officer who pleaded guilty to spying in October, could have been caught earlier — as information from seach warrants obtained by CBC suggests — prompted anger from opposition parties on Parliament Hill on Thursday.

Opposition critics said the revelation that it was the FBI that tipped off the RCMP to suspicions about Delisle, as well as the news that Delisle's security clearance had expired, was disturbing and a "significant breach of security."

Delisle was arrested January 2012 for downloading highly classified documents onto a USB key and passing the information to Russia over a five-year period. He had been working at HMCS Trinity, a top secret naval intelligence facility in Halifax.

The documents were released to the CBC following a court application for three search warrants used to search Delisle's house, car and workplace. The warrants show that in Dec. 2, 2011, the FBI's assistant director sent a letter to the RCMP that implicated a Canadian military officer in espionage and named the officer. That information, however, wasn't given to the Royal Canadian Navy until Dec 20. Delisle wasn't arrested until Jan. 13, more than a month after the FBI warning.

During his time at Trinity, Delisle was going through a bitter marriage breakup and was having financial problems, two factors that would have sounded warning bells in any intelligence officer's security check. But the CBC-obtained documents reveal that Delisle's Level 3 security clearance, the second-highest possible, had not been reassessed when he went to work at Trinity.

'Spycraft 101'

"So what's missing here is some statement from the government recognizing that they had failed to do a proper job, and somehow or other that they are taking this seriously and reacting properly," NDP defence critic Jack Harris said Thursday.

Liberal defence critic John McKay said, "I would hope that [Defence] Minister [Peter] MacKay would have to do some very fast talking to our allies about A, how this happens, and B, that there will be no chance that it ever happens again." McKay added that spotting Delisle should have been "Spycraft 101."

In question period Thursday, Harris asked MacKay what steps he has taken to improve security since last January when Delisle was arrested.

MacKay replied: "The Department of National Defence takes the handling of secure information, secret information very seriously.... This is not something that I or anyone else should be discussing on the floor of the House of Common publicly." MacKay also pointed out that the matter is before the courts.

After question period, Harris said, "The court case is over except for the sentencing. There’s no issues to be debated here except what has this government done to assure Canadians, to remind our allies, but to assure Canadians that they’ve got their act together. He’s not saying anything."

Might have been a defector source

Wesley Wark, an intelligence expert at University of Toronto, said in an email that it's possible that “the Americans might have had a defector source of some kind, which is often how these cases are uncovered. It's not particularly surprising that there might have been a delay between the FBI warning and the arrest as steps would have to happen to gather Canadian evidence to lay charges."

However, Wark said he can't understand how Delisle's security clearance was allowed to lapse. "TS [top security] clearances are meant to expire automatically if not renewed after five years. It is pretty hard and fast as any TS holder will tell you. A little lag might be allowed if the renewal was in progress, but not months [long] lag. I always felt that something had gone wrong with the security process in the Delisle case."

Delisle will be sentenced Jan. 12. He could get a life sentence.

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