Background on Delisle spy case —
By John Irvin
If it was former Canadian Navy Sub-Lieutenant Jeffery Delisle’s intention to free himself of the burden of his financial troubles and to take some decisive action to counter his sense of helplessness when faced with the collapse of his marriage, any relief he may have felt after volunteering his services to the Russian military intelligence service (GRU) would have been relatively short-lived.
The burden that would follow would be even harder to bear and the consequences not just personally tragic but nationally catastrophic.
A previous article (A Psychological Perfect Storm: The Jeffery Delisle Case, Part I) dealt with the circumstances leading up to Delisle’s decision to commit espionage.
Prior to crossing that line he experienced the first three stages of what Dr. David L. Charney, MD, describes as the Ten Life Stages of the Insider Spy in Part One: True Psychology of the Insider Spy of his two-part publication NOIR: A White Paper:
- Stage One – the sensitizing stage,
- Stage Two – the stress/spiral stage, and
- Stage Three – the crisis/climax/resolution stage.
The article suggests that he might never have considered such a drastic option had he been better able to deal with his own private “psychological perfect storm.”
He failed to seek help from his military chain-of-command or from any employee assistance program (EAP) based on his belief that it might be damaging to his career (which is sadly ironic in that the damage he did by committing espionage was far worse than any career damage that might have resulted from approaching his management or an EAP).
Delisle also had no recourse to a Canadian equivalent of the National Office for Intelligence Reconciliation (NOIR) as described in Part Two of NOIR: A White Paper.
In the end, of course, he bears full responsibility for his actions, but a NOIR serving as an EAP of last resort would have given him a more desirable option than the potential career damage of discussing his personal issues with management and the catastrophic personal and career damage of espionage.
In the end, he did choose the latter, turning his private dilemma into a disaster for his country and its allies. This article will discuss the next seven stages he experienced as an insider spy.
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. 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 later 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.
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. His possible motivation is discussed in greater depth in the previous article.
On the face of it, his primary motivation would have been financial, but comments he made to authorities when faced with proof of his espionage would suggest his marital situation was at least as significant a factor. It was at this point, at Stage Three – the crisis/climax/resolution stage – that he chose to resolve his financial, marital, and personal issues by betraying his country.
Like the majority of insider spies, Delisle wasn’t recruited in the classical sense (his first contact with the GRU wasn’t until the day he walked into the Russian embassy of his own volition) as much as he volunteered. Regardless of whether the spy is recruited or volunteers, Stage Four is characterized by a sense of accomplishment. The deed is done, the crisis resolved, the Rubicon is fatefully and irrevocably crossed.
Delisle is likely to have had a similar experience. His financial difficulties would now be a thing of the past. This was all the more important since his wife was now gone and he would have responsibility for all four children. As for his need to deal with what Dr. Charney posits as the core psychology of the insider spy – an intolerable sense of personal failure, as privately defined by that person – he had now taken decisive action. He had taken control of his life and put it on a path of his own choosing in one fateful deed.
Furthermore, he had taken an action that would have surprised, even shocked his wife, one that would have seemed entirely out of character. He had killed the old Jeff Delisle. As he put it himself, he had committed “professional suicide.”
While the post-recruitment stage is defined by a sense of a crisis resolved, it is a truism that actions taken in an emotional, perhaps irrational state of crisis often quickly lead to regret. How long Delisle took to reach Stage Five – the remorse/morning-after stage – is known only to him, but come it did. With the possible exception of those few insider spies who appear to show no remorse, such as the Navy’s John Anthony Walker or the CIA’s Aldrich Ames, second-guessing such a momentous (not to mention illegal) decision is inevitable.
Delisle had effectively solved his financial problems. He had also regained a sense of efficacy long absent during his declining marital situation. He had demonstrated that he was capable of behavior none would have expected of him or, perhaps, thought him capable of. The unavoidable question would eventually have come to him – but was it worth it?
He had never openly expressed any grievance against his native Canada nor any particular fondness for Russia, yet he had betrayed the one to the benefit of the other. Any rationalization based on political ideology would have rung hollow.
In the transcript of his interview with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) he offers that he took the money to benefit his children, yet he was aware that if his espionage ever came to light it would ruin his image in the eyes of his children. When the RCMP interviewer suggested that Delisle’s children would respect him for telling the truth, he responded that, while they used to “idolize” him, now “…they won’t idolize me anymore. My daughter will end up hating me…”
Perhaps the bitterest realization would be that Delisle’s effort to regain a sense of self-efficacy (the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations) had resulted in less, rather than greater control of his life circumstances. By committing an illegal act, he placed himself under the effective control of his co-conspirators, in this case the GRU. He painted himself into a corner from which there was no acceptable way out.
Dr. Charney describes this as one of the three existential dilemmas of the insider spy. Delisle would now experience “stuckness…a condition of being in a state of paralysis, unable to steer the course of his own life.” To turn himself in to Canadian authorities almost certainly meant time in prison. To continue his espionage was to hope for the best while understanding that at any moment events beyond his control could expose his subterfuge.
A review of past espionage cases demonstrates that the majority of insider spies are discovered, not as a result of any tradecraft failure on the part of themselves or their handlers, but when a member of the “other team” either defects or begins working with their national service or that of an ally.
In his interview Delisle expressed his sense of stuckness when he said of the GRU, “Then when I got involved in that, I knew I was hooked…and they knew they had me by the short hairs too.”
If Delisle believe simply walking away from the GRU was an option, he was dissuaded of that belief in one of the most disturbing ways possible. Delisle isn’t clear in his interview, but whether as a result of expressing reservations about his espionage or as a warning on the part of the GRU should he have such second thoughts, he states that he received letters mailed from addresses around Ottawa, some of which contained pictures of his children. He said at one point, “And then they had all my information, they had photos of me, they had a photo of my children and I knew exactly what it was for (emphasis added).”
Delisle stated that the GRU never specifically threatened his family, but that they “implied things.” It would be difficult to think of any other reason the GRU would send him pictures of his children except as a thinly-veiled threat. While it is possible that Delisle fabricated or exaggerated this threat, there are previously reported cases of Russian intelligence services and their former Warsaw Pact sister-services making subtle or direct threats against the families of their own spies.
Delisle discovered what many who engage in criminal activity discover; that while they may think they can keep their family and friends separate from their illegal activities, that they can somehow keep the two worlds apart, they have no control over those with whom they conspire. Whether the GRU would have actually acted upon their not-so-subtle threats is irrelevant. What mattered is that Delisle believed they might. It is likely he felt the responsible parent’s greatest fear when he “would get…the odd photograph of my daughter.”
His inability to extricate himself from the consequences of his action (without risking jail or worse) would have contributed to another of what Dr. Charney describes as the three existential dilemmas of the insider spy, a sense of failure upon failure. Delisle had experienced a series of failures which led to the psychological perfect storm that set the stage for his decision to commit espionage. His decision to volunteer to the GRU was an effort to remedy that sense of failure but, as he would eventually discover, it was actually another failure, one that was more consequential than any other.
His attempt to regain a sense of control in his life instead placed him under the control of his co-conspirators, the GRU. His attempt to solve his financial problems was certainly, in a sense, successful, but accepting the GRU money would, in the event of discovery, also serve as proof of his espionage. Furthermore, the need to come up with a plausible explanation for the extra income would be a constant strain on his psyche.
Delisle stated that he took his action to benefit his children (to provide for them financially, especially in the absence of their mother), but the unforeseen consequence would be that he made his family subject to unspecified threats by his erstwhile GRU benefactors. Instead of taking care of his children, he had put them at risk.
Less tangible but no less important was the damage he had done to his own sense of self. Having demonstrated a strict moralism since youth, he had now become a spy for a hostile foreign country and the sort of person he would likely have despised in the past. After revealing his espionage to his RCMP interviewer, he stated matter-of-factly, “I’m not a good man anymore.”
For Delisle, Stage Six – the active spy career stage – would likely have been one of drudgery and constant anxiety. The damage he did to the national security of Canada and her allies stands in contrast to the banality of his espionage activities. Essentially, he would simply download files once a month from his classified computer system and load them onto an unclassified system, where he would copy and paste the information into a draft email for an account set up by the GRU.
Apparently, he was never required to engage in the sort of complex impersonal communications that the KGB was known for and only travelled outside of Canada once to meet his GRU handlers. The meeting in Brazil was, however, fateful in that it set him up for eventual discovery. For whatever reason, his GRU handler gave him a large amount of cash and pre-paid credit cards that he was obliged to either abandon or try to bring through Canadian customs upon his return. Naturally, this came to the attention of customs agents. It was likely at this point that Delisle knew the end was near.
Stage Seven – the dormancy stage(s) – may have been an aspiration that Delisle also failed to achieve. In the dormancy stage, an insider spy will either be directed by his handler to “lie low” for a time or may, of his own accord, dial down or even cease his activities. In his interview, Delisle certainly gives the impression of a spy who would like to have found a way out of his situation. Turning himself in would have meant prison and simply quitting was not an option given the veiled threats to his children. He may, however, have believed that his diabetes would eventually have forced him out of military service and, thus, made him of no interest to the GRU.
Delisle was probably sorely disappointed when he raised the issue with his handler in Brazil only to be told that the GRU was not yet done with him. He was informed that, in the event he was released from the military, the GRU still wished to use him as a so-called “pigeon” and have him act as interface with other spies in Canada. For Delisle, even leaving the military and losing his access to classified information would still not free him of his GRU shackles.
For Delisle, Stage Seven and Stage Eight – the pre-arrest stage – may have overlapped somewhat. In this stage, the insider spy is increasingly aware that the end is near and may demonstrate a degree of fatalism. After his return from Brazil and the attention he received from Canadian customs officials, his handlers suggested he go into “sleep mode” (dormancy) for the rest of the year. Instead, Delisle reassured them that “all is good” and continued his espionage up until the week before his arrest.
Perhaps in his mind there was still one way out; getting caught.
Stage Nine – the arrest and post-arrest stage – likely appeared both inevitable and a relief for Jeff Delisle. When faced with incontrovertible evidence during his first interview with RCMP, he opened up completely and cooperated with authorities. Some insider spies react to their arrest with adolescent bravado and contemptuous comments. Delisle simply melted. After confessing, he said he felt relieved but also “dead inside.” Throughout he expressed concern for his children and how his arrest would affect them.
In the end, after describing to his RCMP interviewer how he had betrayed his country to the Russian military intelligence service, he asked, “No hard feelings, Jim?”
The last stage in the Ten Life Stages of the Insider Spy is Stage Ten – the brooding in jail stage. We cannot know how Delisle and his children are dealing with this. A subsequent article will discuss how a National Office for Intelligence Reconciliation might have changed this outcome.
 Sulick, M. (2013). American Spies: Espionage Against the United States From the Cold War to the Present. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
 For example, William Bell, an insider spy who worked for Hughes Aircraft Company, reported that his Polish intelligence service handlers made subtle threats against his family to ensure his continued cooperation. (Sulick, 2013)
Jeffrey Deslisle talks about his emotional state that led to his spying for the Russians: