By John Irvin
By all accounts, there’s nothing exceptional about former Canadian Navy Sub-Lieutenant Jeffery Delisle, certainly nothing that would suggest a future as a convicted insider spy.
A high school friend described him as the “sort of person who just blended into the background.”  If he was notable in high school for anything, it was for being a “straight arrow” and not the type to get into trouble. Even his ex-wife commented, “He was a very black and white kind of guy, and he didn’t like people who did black things, so he made me look and strive for higher things.”
So how did a man of such seemingly strong moral conviction betray his country (as well as the United States, Great Britain, and Australia) by selling secrets to the Russian military intelligence service (GRU) for five years, beginning in 2007?
In the aftermath of espionage cases, we tend to look for the personality defect (the flaw, vulnerability, or vice) that obviously would have identified the spy earlier if only someone had been looking. Not surprisingly, with the advantage of hindsight we almost always find one. It’s comforting to think insider spies are fundamentally flawed in a unique, identifiable way that allows for effective screening. It’s comforting to believe they’re not like the rest of us in some intrinsic way.
Few insider spies, however, turn out to be as demonstrably sociopathic as former US Navy Chief Warrant Officer John Anthony Walker, who never expressed any visible sympathy for the suffering he caused his own family or regret for the damage he did to the country he betrayed.
Most turn out to be as average as anyone you might pass on the street. The difference is that when their all-too-human flaws reach a certain crisis level, they use their unique access to classified material to resolve their personal crisis in what appears to them at the time to be the most efficacious manner…espionage.
Perhaps the more realistic view of the insider spy is less one of a significantly flawed individual seeking opportunity to do damage as much as one of an apparently trustworthy individual who harbors inside himself the seed of betrayal. That seed may remain dormant and hidden, both to the individual and the employer, for an entire career. Or it may erupt under just the right set of circumstances, under what might be considered a psychological perfect storm.
Interview transcripts suggest Jeffery Delisle suffered such a perfect storm and, as a result, the man who saw the world in morally black and white terms, who “didn’t like people who did black things,” freely decided to do a very “black thing” himself.
Dr. David L. Charney, MD, addresses this in Part One: True Psychology of the Insider Spy of his two-part publication NOIR: A White Paper. Charney suggests that the core psychology of the insider spy is “an intolerable sense of personal failure, as privately defined by that person.” The psychological perfect storm creates the conditions under which the sense of personal failure must be relieved in some manner in order to reestablish a positive sense of self, to defend the individual’s ego.
A key point in core psychology theory is that the failure is “privately defined by that person.” In other words, an outsider may view the life circumstances of the insider spy as perhaps difficult but certainly not overwhelming.
Some individuals with access to classified material may suffer the trials of Job and still never consider espionage, while others may cross the line under circumstances that might not appear particularly egregious to the outsider. Likewise, the outsider may not consider the insider spy’s “failure” as serious enough to warrant espionage, perhaps not even as a “failure” at all.
However, how the outsider sees things is irrelevant, since it is the insider spy alone who determines whether his sense of failure is intolerable. It isn’t a matter of objective reality, but of subjective perception. Delisle’s ex-wife is quoted saying, “the Jeff that I married is not the Jeff that did this. It blows my mind that somebody can betray a whole country, ‘cause one marriage failed.”
Of course, she’s wrong; the man she married is the man who betrayed a whole country. Even the people closest to him could only see what was on the outside. What led him to espionage was on the inside, invisible to everyone.
The Delisle Case
To summarize the case, after graduating from high school in 1990, Delisle joined the Canadian Navy reserve in 1996 as an intelligence operator. In 1997 he married Jennifer, a woman he had dated since high school and with whom he already had two daughters, born in 1993 and 1994. His ex-wife later recalled, “He was the good guy. He was the kind that you looked for. Well, I remember quoting to one of my friends, (I’m) going to date him for a week or two because he’s not really my type right now. I’m still into a party mode. But you know, when I want to marry somebody, that might be the guy I look for.”
Less than a year after their marriage, Delisle filed for bankruptcy. In March of 2001, he left the reserves and enlisted in the regular Canadian Forces, was promoted to Corporal in October of that year and to Sergeant five years later. The family lived in co-op housing for low- to medium-income families.
In 2004 his two daughters were struck by an automobile. One daughter was injured enough to require medical treatment. Delisle tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to have the driver pay his daughter’s medical bills. During this time the marriage also appears to have begun deteriorating. His ex-wife complained that he spent an excessive amount of time and money playing video games on their personal computer. She said they discussed the matter and Delisle was apologetic, but also claimed he did nothing to change his behavior. She later said, “He played a lot of games…for a very long time. So he lived in his own little world.”
His “own little world” fell apart in 2007, when Delisle discovered that his wife was having an affair. He claimed that on that same day he walked into the Russian Embassy in Ottawa and volunteered his services to the GRU. After his arrest, he said of that day, “I walked right into the Russian Embassy…and that was the last day of Jeff Delisle.”
Subsequent events will be discussed in a future article. The focus here is the subjective mental state that led him to believe espionage was not only a reasonable option, but perhaps the best one…perhaps, in his mind, the only one. This is not to excuse Delisle his crime. Except in cases of actual coercion, an individual is always responsible for his or her actions, regardless of circumstances. To explain is not to excuse. To understand is not to exonerate.
In Part One of NOIR: A White Paper, Dr. Charney describes the Ten Life Stages of the Insider Spy.
Stage One, the sensitizing stage, represents the life experience that establishes the personality of the insider spy, including the psychological trait(s) that later, under the right circumstances, lead him to espionage.
Stage Two represents the stress/spiral stage in which the individual experiences events and outcomes that put profound stress on his both his circumstances and concept-of-self or ego.
In Stage Three, the crisis/climax/resolution stage, the stressors reach a critical level, the pressure on the individual’s ego becomes acute, and some action must be taken to relieve the pressure. In the case of the insider spy, resolution comes in the form of a decision to commit espionage.
All three stages contribute to what Dr. Charney describes as the core psychology of the insider spy, an intolerable sense of personal failure, as privately defined by that person. Life events form the personality which sets the stage for future espionage (Phase One). Increasing stress from which there seems no resolution (Stage Two) leads to the psychological perfect storm from which the individual seeks resolution by making the life-transforming decision to commit treason.
We can’t know what events from Delisle’s early years may have contributed to the eventual intolerable sense of failure that turned him from a straight arrow to an insider spy, but he is reported to have exhibited a strict moralism at least as early as high school. In a black and white world, there is no place for grey areas. Any inability on his part, in thought or deed, to live up to a morally absolutist view of himself would have been considered a failure. Since moral perfection is more of a goal to strive for than a realistic expectation, failure at one time or another is inevitable.
Delisle is reported to have had few notable vices. He apparently didn’t exhibit any form of excessive behavior (such as drinking, drug use, risk-taking, or avarice) except for a video game addiction as reported by his ex-wife. While not displaying avarice, he did appear to have a significant problem managing his finances. Within a year of his marriage, he filed for bankruptcy. Given prevailing societal expectations of the male as breadwinner, he is quite likely to have experienced this as a failure.
Delisle is also likely to have viewed his unsuccessful attempts to obtain payment for his daughter’s 2004 medical bills from the driver of the vehicle that struck her as a failure. Furthermore, whether rational or not, as a parent he may even have viewed the accident involving his daughters as a failure on his part to protect his family, another key societal expectation of the male.
While military service has its own unique rewards, significant wealth accumulation tends not to be one of them. Having initially joined the reserves, it would appear full-time military service was not Delisle’s first choice, but perhaps the best one when all other options seemed to have failed. While he did eventually receive a commission (after beginning his career as a spy), his military service proceeded at an average rather than accelerated pace. This would have involved a family of eventually six persons living for years on the relatively small salary of an enlisted man. The stress on his marriage relationship can be imagined.
Financial problems, addictions of one sort or another, and adultery are all significant contributors to the dissolution of a marriage. Delisle experienced all of them before walking into the Russian Embassy. For most married men, the relationship with their spouse is integral to defining themselves as men. In Delisle’s mind, his wife’s adultery would have been more than just “one marriage (that) failed.” Regardless of where his ex-wife or others may have placed blame, for him it would have been a failure of him as a man to maintain his primary intimate relationship.
For Delisle, his wife’s infidelity may have been the final blow in a series of failures that undermined his sense of efficacy, that is, his belief in his ability to control or direct events in his life. He failed to manage his finances and his marriage and he likely felt events spinning out of his control. This would have created the “psychological perfect storm,” the crisis that finally made his sense of failure intolerable. He would have had to take some drastic action to regain a sense of control.
Walking into the Russian Embassy was ill-conceived, illegal, and would eventually have devastating consequences. However, it was also the sort of action he had not taken up to that time; it was decisive. Although it is possible Delisle had already at one time or another considered espionage as a way of out his financial problems (even if only half-seriously), his action on the day he discovered his wife’s affair was probably for the most part spontaneous.
In one impulsive, transformative act, he changed not only his circumstances, but how he viewed himself. He changed who he was. As he later stated, “…that was the last day of Jeff Delisle.”
Delisle said after his arrest that through her betrayal his wife had “killed (him)” and that he had considered suicide but couldn’t because of his responsibility to his children. “So I committed professional suicide” he told authorities.
In his mind he likely did “kill” the old Jeff Delisle; the one who had failed so many times in so many ways and couldn’t cope with his deteriorating circumstances. In the process he also killed the Jeff Delisle who believed himself to be a “good man” in a morally black and white world. If nothing else, it demonstrates the lengths an individual will go to in order to regain a sense of efficacy, to defend his ego. It was a Faustian bargain with predictably tragic results, not only for Delisle and his family, but for the country he served and its allies.
In addition to demonstrating the first three phases of Dr. Charney’s Ten Life Stages of the Insider Spy, and core psychology (“An intolerable sense of personal failure, as privately defined by that person.”), the Delisle case suggests how the existence of a Canadian equivalent of the National Office for Intelligence Reconciliation (NOIR) described in Part Two of NOIR: A White Paper might have changed the outcome.
In most cases, a NOIR would serve to reconcile insider spies who had already crossed the threshold into espionage. Another function, however, would be to provide an employee assistance program (EAP) of last resort. Delisle certainly had the option of approaching his chain of command for assistance as the psychological pressure from his deteriorating financial and marital situation built within him. Unfortunately, he did not because, in his own words, “You know, you couldn’t seek psychological counseling. You couldn’t seek (a) therapist, you can’t take stress leave without it implicating you…stressing your career.”
Many military and intelligence professionals will not seek help from their organization’s EAP or inform management of personal difficulties because of the perception that it will have a negative impact on their careers, perhaps even ending them. As a result, problems often fester until they seriously impact job performance and do, in fact, become career-ending. It doesn’t matter whether or not the fear is justified in reality, since the mere perception that it is damaging is enough to prevent the employee from seeking assistance.
Current counterintelligence practice seeks out personality faults or problematic behavior that would indicate a propensity toward espionage. The unintentional result is often a “zero-defects” mentality in which any difficulty, whether psychological, financial, or marital, is seen as a so-called “red flag.” It is also all-too-human in a zero-defects environment to react in harsh terms toward an individual who suffers some sort of problem in order to, consciously or unconsciously, foster the (unrealistic) belief among one’s peers and possibly one’s self that one is impervious to such defects or mishaps.
Disgruntlement may result when the “red-flagged” individual is fired or placed in a position where it is clear his or her career is at an end. The Edward Lee Howard case serves as a notorious example.  Careful outplacement done professionally and non-judgmentally by an organization not associated with the individual’s employer is likely to reduce the individual’s resentment at being let go and, therefore, the likelihood of future betrayal.
If Jeff Delisle had a NOIR to seek out for assistance, it is quite likely he would never have felt it necessary to deal with his personal issues by impulsively volunteering his services to the GRU. A NOIR that served as an EAP of last resort would have created at least a temporary barrier between his problems and his management. He may very well have still lost his clearance for classified information, but a NOIR could also have subtly and quietly ease his transition to another function in the military or assisted in outplacement to a civilian job in a manner that would have decreased the likelihood of Delisle committing espionage out of anger or resentment.
In damage assessments after Delisle’s arrest, Canada’s Department of National Defense (DND) described his activities as “exceptionally grave,” while the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) described them as “severe and irreparable.” His actions were also unnecessary. Had there been an organization such as NOIR for Delisle to turn to during his “psychological perfect storm,” they might never have happened at all.
 At his sentencing, Judge Alexander Harvey II said to Walker, “I look in vain for some redeeming aspect in your character.”
 Howard was a CIA case officer slotted for a position in Moscow who was fired after failing a pre-deployment polygraph. He exacted his revenge by revealing damaging information to the KGB and eventually defected to the Soviet Union.