By John A. Irvin
When the prison doors shut on insider spy and former Canadian Navy Sub-Lieutenant Jeffery Delisle, he left behind four children and a budding relationship with a woman who loved him. Delisle had a history of marital and financial problems that included declaring bankruptcy and discovering his wife’s adultery, which created the conditions that might be considered a psychological perfect storm.
Overwhelmed by events and acting on emotion, he came to the ill-conceived conclusion that volunteering to spy for the Russian military intelligence service (GRU) would solve his financial problems and give him a measure of control in his life, a sense of effectiveness.
Rather than being the solution to his problems, it set him on a downward spiral that ended with his arrest, separation from the children he loved and the promise of a new romantic relationship, and the loss of what little freedom he had not already sacrificed to his GRU handlers.
Of course, it did not have to end this way.
Even in his desperate, emotional state, he might still have chosen not to betray his country and her allies by volunteering to the GRU. At several points in his life he might have made other decisions and taken other actions that could have avoided the particular combination of internal and external circumstances, the specific confluence of events and Delisle’s personal perception of reality, which culminated in treason, regret, and finally prison.
However, the day Delisle walked into the Russian embassy in Ottawa he effectively sealed his own fate. Espionage is not a choice that lends itself to many options.
He might somehow avoid discovery, work until the GRU deemed him of no further use, and lived the rest of his life with the knowledge that at any time the right Russian defector could still expose his espionage.
He might himself defect and live in Russia, a country that would openly praise him but privately view him as someone who could never be fully trusted (after all, he had betrayed his own country).
Lastly, he might at any time be discovered and arrested which, given current counterintelligence practice, would almost certainly mean a lengthy prison term.
The die was irrevocably cast and his options limited to a narrow few, none of which were particularly desirable, when Delisle crossed over the line into espionage.
There might, however, have been another option.
It would have been like a lifeline thrown to a drowning man, not as he teetered on the edge, but after he had already jumped overboard and, struggling in vain while sinking deeper and deeper, after he realized he had made the worst mistake of his life. It would not be forgiveness, absolution, or amnesty, but it would be something Delisle and most other insider spies sooner or later desperately seek…a way out.
This option would have been reconciliation, as described by Dr. David Charney in Part Two (Proposing a New Policy for Improving National Security by Fixing the Problem of Insider Spies) of NOIR: A White Paper. This option would hypothetically have been offered by a Canadian version of the National Office for Intelligence Reconciliation (NOIR) proposed in the same publication. While not as desirable as never having made the choice to spy in the first place, it could have provided Delisle with an option that was far better than the fate that ultimately befell him.
This is the third in a series of articles on Delisle. The first two articles (A Psychological Perfect Storm: The Jeffery Delisle Case, Part I and “They Had a Photo of My Children”: The Jeffery Delisle Case, Part II) describe how Delisle experienced “The Ten Life Stages of the Insider Spy” as described by Dr. Charney in Part One (True Psychology of the Insider Spy) of NOIR: A White Paper.
This article will describe how reconciliation could have drastically changed the outcome for Delisle and his family and avoided or reduced the serious damage he caused to Canadian and allied national security. It will also discuss how this particular case highlights the key tactical and strategic benefits of NOIR.
To summarize, 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. 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 his marriage also appears to have begun deteriorating. His ex-wife later complained that he spent an excessive amount of time and money playing video games on their personal computer. She said they had discussed the matter and Delisle was apologetic, but also claimed he did nothing to change his behavior.
In 2007, Delisle discovered that his wife was having an affair and, on that same day, walked into the Russian embassy in Ottawa to volunteer his services to the GRU. He began providing information to the GRU from classified intelligence sharing databases to which he had access. In 2011, Canadian authorities began investigating Delisle based on a tip they had received from the FBI. Delisle was arrested in January, 2012, put on trial and convicted, and sentenced to 20 years in prison in February, 2013.
Any efforts on the part of the Canadian military or Delisle himself to prevent his ill-conceived decision to commit espionage were rendered moot when he ultimately made that choice. From that point onward, his options would be limited by current counterintelligence and law enforcement practice, which is generally to seek the maximum punishment for caught spies in order to serve as a deterrent to others who may be considering similar activity (although the value of harsh punishment as a deterrent seems more a matter of so-called “common sense” than clinical fact ).
From the start of his active spy career, Delisle had few real choices except to turn himself in to authorities and almost certainly face prison or to ride out his time as a GRU spy and hope for the best.
In other words, the threat of severe punishment actually gave Delisle less incentive to stop spying.
A NOIR offering reconciliation would have given Delisle an option that doesn’t exist today, but one that could have significant impact on reducing the severity (perhaps even the incidence) of insider spying.
As envisioned by Dr. Charney, reconciliation is the process by which an insider spy voluntarily turns him- or herself in to a NOIR in order to avoid lengthy incarceration, the usual punishment in such cases. Rather than simply a get-out-of-jail-free card, reconciliation involves a legal agreement between the insider spy and authorities, violation of which makes the insider spy again subject to harsh punishment.
The harshest punishment for espionage is execution. However, since no insider spy has been executed in the United States since the Rosenberg case in 1953, a lengthy prison term (to include life without parole) is effectively the harshest punishment in use today (at least in the West). Imprisonment involves an individual’s loss of the freedom of movement, placing severe limits on where he can be, when he can be there, what activities he can engage in, and with whom he can interact. In the psychological sense, it does not limit an individual’s intellectual freedom, but lengthy imprisonment no doubt has a significant psychological impact.
A second punishment the caught insider spy suffers is the public exposure of his or her treason. Ego is arguably the fundamental motivation for all cases of insider spying. Even in the case of a venal spy such as Aldrich Ames, the material wealth he gained from his espionage likely served to counter (at least in his mind) his mediocre performance as a CIA operations officer, elevate himself in the eyes of his equally venal wife, and thus enhance his ego. With the exception of those insider spies who are particularly adept at self-delusion and rationalizations, public exposure is a tremendous blow to the ego the insider spy sought to enhance (or save) when making the decision to commit espionage in the first place.
Furthermore, public exposure does not simply punish the insider spy. Friends, co-workers, family members and other loved ones all suffer to some degree from media coverage of the arrest, public trial, conviction, and imprisonment of the insider spy. The damage to family members in particular may not simply be the loss of material support or disrupted lives, but also the unwelcome notoriety, embarrassment, and perceived or actual stigma. In 1972, shamed by his father’s espionage, the son of ex-US Army sergeant and insider spy Robert Lee Walker fatally stabbed his father while visiting him in prison.
Any legal agreement an insider spy who seeks reconciliation would receive would be situationally-dependent. It would be determined on a case-by-case basis and in recognition of the severity of his espionage. At a minimum, any material or financial benefit he received from his espionage would be forfeited or repaid to authorities. He would certainly lose his access to classified information, ending his career in intelligence and, perhaps, government service.
He might have restrictions placed on his ability to move within or outside the country or with whom he interacts. Full cooperation in a damage assessment is guaranteed by the reality that any deception or withholding of information on his part would be a breach of the agreement. The insider spy would also be subject to what would effectively be life-long probation, since the agreement to cooperate fully with authorities would only end with his death or his deliberate breach of its conditions.
Some situations would bar the insider spy from the option of reconciliation. He could certainly not request reconciliation as FBI vehicles closed in on him. In fact, for reconciliation to be fully effective spies who are caught rather than turn themselves in must face maximum punishment.
In summary, the insider spy does not escape punishment through reconciliation, he simply avoids the complete loss of freedom and separation from loved ones he would face with imprisonment, as well as the ignominy he and his family would face from public exposure. While the reconciliation agreement might seem a sort of indentured servitude, the insider spy can still live a more or less normal life, be an active and present part of his family, seek other employment and support himself and his family, and otherwise be a contributing part of the society he earlier betrayed. Depending on the agreement, the insider spy may be able to make other contributions to national security.
The terms of the reconciliation agreement could be quite harsh depending on the damage the insider spy is responsible for, but as former State Department official Felix Bloch might agree, bagging groceries or driving city bus is still preferable to years in prison. Reconciliation also avoids the stigma to the individual and his loved ones of his being recognized as an insider spy.
Dr. Charney points out six key benefits to creating a NOIR, three tactical and three strategic.
The tactical benefits are:
- Cessation – the spying stops at an earlier stage
- Mitigation – a more thorough damage assessment is obtained
- Exploitation – taking advantage of the cooperation of the insider spy to achieve other national security goals.
The strategic benefits are
- Predomination – undermining the spy/handler relationship of adversaries gives the country with an NOIR an advantage over those without such an organization
- Coordination – bridging stovepipes by sharing an intelligence community-wide resource
- Prevention – reducing the incentives to become an insider spy and redefining the meaning of espionage in a decidedly unattractive way.
As discussed in previous articles, a Canadian NOIR would have offered services that might have avoided Delisle’s decision to commit espionage in the first place. Given that he did cross that line, how might events have played out differently afterward if there had been a Canadian NOIR in existence? Furthermore, how would that hypothetical scenario highlight the six key benefits of NOIR?
It would appear from statements Delisle himself made to Canadian authorities after his arrest that, while no doubt welcoming the relief from his financial difficulties spying for the GRU afforded, he quickly realized the error of his hasty action and the moral implications of his treason. According to Dr. Charney, this would have represented Stage Five, the remorse/morning-after stage, in The Ten Life Stages of the Insider Spy and would have been the first window of opportunity for reconciliation.
Had Delisle had the option of contacting a NOIR early on, perhaps even within days of his ill-fated visit to the Russian embassy in Ottawa, he would have avoided causing the damage to his country and her allies that eventually occurred and he would have been in a better position to portray his action for what it likely was, a profoundly ill-conceived act done in haste and out of raw emotion. He would certainly have lost his job, but he could have been quietly moved to another position in the military or allowed to seek civilian employment that did not involve classified information.
This scenario would also represent two of the key benefits of NOIR.
First, it would have served the tactical benefit of cessation; Delisle would have stopped his spying almost as soon as it began.
Second, it would have served the tactical benefit of exploitation; Delisle could have told authorities exactly who he spoke with at the Russian embassy, the instructions he was given for future contact, and perhaps the type of information the GRU was interested in obtaining.
If Delisle was reluctant to acknowledge the gravity of his mistake before, it was likely driven home to him when he began receiving letters from various addresses in the Ottawa area that included photographs of his children. As he himself told authorities, “…they had a photo of my children and I knew exactly what it was for.” While it appears the GRU never clearly threatened his family, it is difficult to imagine any other reason why they would send him the photos except as a thinly-veiled threat to ensure his continued cooperation.
The ruthlessness of this action would likely have given Delisle great incentive to approach a NOIR and free himself and his family from their dangerous situation. At this point, he would have been spying for some time and reconciliation would have provided authorities with a detailed damage assessment that, in addition to serving the key benefits of cessation and exploitation, would have assisted in mitigation. Furthermore, the information obtained on GRU tradecraft in Canada would have been shared with other Canadian agencies and assisted in investigation of other GRU activities, thereby serving the benefit of coordination.
Although Delisle could have availed himself of a NOIR at any point in his insider spy career, perhaps the last straw that would have convinced him it would be the best option would have been when he was informed that even leaving the military would not free him of his GRU chains. During his one overseas meeting with GRU handlers, he was told that even if his diabetes meant an end to his service, the GRU intended to continue using him as a go-between with other GRU assets in Canada.
At this point, if no other, Delisle would have realized there really was no way out of his predicament except to continue his espionage and hope for the best. Hope, however, is not a reliable strategy. Delisle still could have approached a NOIR and requested reconciliation, even at this late stage in the game, although the terms of his agreement would have been harsher than at any previous time.
He certainly would have been required to pay back all the money the GRU gave him. His movement, especially out of country, would likely have been restricted and he would have lived much like a prison parolee without having actually gone to prison. He would, however, have saved his family from separation and the public spectacle of his arrest, trial, and imprisonment. He would also have saved the Canadian Forces and his country the embarrassment of his public exposure.
Perhaps most rewarding from Delisle’s point of view would be that he could secretly strike a blow against the GRU that had threatened his family and refused to release him by cooperating fully with authorities to thwart other Russian intelligence activities in Canada. This would have made at least some amends for the damage he did and would likely have given authorities an opportunity that would not have been possible without his full cooperation.
As for the key benefit of prevention, even if Delisle’s case had been handled discreetly, with no one except a select few Canadian officials aware of his espionage, the basic knowledge that a Canadian NOIR had successfully employed reconciliation would serve a preventative role. While details would be few, a point critics (and adversarial governments) would certainly seize upon, the perception that a NOIR was available would likely help reduce the sort of employee grievance that so often contributes to insider espionage.
The argument that a NOIR would actually increase the incidence of insider spying by giving spies the perceived option of reaping the benefits of their treason then requesting reconciliation when convenient would be dispelled when the first insider spy attempted to “game the system.” Public discussion of why the spy did not qualify for reconciliation would actually serve the goals of a NOIR by clarifying its role and the benefits it provides to those who seek reconciliation in good-will and (preferably) in a timely-manner.
Finally, Delisle’s case would demonstrate the key strategic benefit of predomination. For a NOIR to be effective it must be credible to the insider spy, otherwise it cannot serve as a desirable alternative to relying on his handler and hoping for the best. Credibility is an advantage almost exclusive to countries that have effective (even if imperfect) rule of law and government accountability. Canada certainly fits this description and the conditions set in any legal agreement offered by a Canadian NOIR could reasonably be assumed as legally binding for both the insider spy and to the government.
That same credibility can be assumed as lacking in most adversarial countries, which tend toward laws that change and promises that no longer need be kept based solely on the self-serving and arbitrary will of the individual or group in power. It is unlikely any of the GRU officers Delisle came into contact with would have trusted the guarantees of a NOIR set up in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The operational benefit of predomination would have been that it undermined the spy/handler relationship by giving Delisle another option beyond relying solely on the very conditional support of his GRU case officer.
While it would appear in Delisle’s case that the GRU was effective on its own in undermining the spy/handler relationship, predomination is also achieved by forcing adversarial intelligence officers to approach, recruit, and handle assets in a more cautious manner, given that they are no longer the only source of support for the spy. The relationship is undermined by the very fact that, through a NOIR, the insider spy always has a way out. There is accountability, there is punishment, but there is a way out.
In short, the insider spy is no longer at the mercy of his handler and the hostile, impersonal intelligence service bureaucracy that directs them. The control the handler has over his spy is derived mainly from the reality that the spy is a solitary figure engaged in criminal activity that he needs to keep secret. The spy may delude himself into believing he is in control of the situation, but in a practical sense the handler is the only source of support the spy has.
Intelligence services do not provide assistance to their insider spies out of a good-natured desire to help others in need. The relationship is utilitarian rather than humanitarian. The GRU made it clear to Delisle that they were in complete control of him and that he had no alternative to continued cooperation when they delivered veiled threats toward his children. Some intelligence services with better, institutionalized oversight and the good sense to realize that threatening assets is not the best way of achieving their long-term cooperation no doubt take a more balanced, equitable approach.
Today Jeffery Delisle sits in prison, a distant, indistinct figure unable to participate fully in the lives of his children and forever labeled a traitor to his country. Given current counterintelligence and law enforcement practice, this was more or less inevitable. Furthermore, after beginning his career as an insider spy there was no incentive for him to stop his spying earlier and minimize the overwhelming damage he caused to his country and her allies. In fact, practice was such as to virtually guarantee his continued espionage. While Delisle bears full responsibility for his actions, nevertheless, it could have been otherwise.
With an understanding and application of The True Psychology of the Insider Spy and creation of a National Office for Intelligence Reconciliation (NOIR), with the acknowledgement that justice and vengeance are not the same thing and that seeking maximum punishment does not necessarily serve the best interests of the nation, with a way out for genuinely repentant but trapped insider spies, the outcome could be different many times over. For Jeff Delisle and his family, however, it’s simply too late.