The Delisle Spy Case and its larger implications for the navy

Dan Leger, writing as a freelance journalist, has an article entitled “Delisle case: We need accountability over expedience,” in the ‘Opinions’ section of the 29 October issue of the Halifax Herald. He asks probing questions about how a such "weak link" like Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Paul Delisle got into the navy’s “security chain” and wonders if putting all the blame on the individual and locking him away is “mere expedience” rather than accountability.  Liberal defence critic John McKay told the CBC he was surprised how "pedestrian" the story is. “How could the military not know from 2007 to 2010 this man was receiving 3,000 dollars a month [from the Russian GRU]? How could they not know he was having marital problems?” This are excellent questions.  The answers are not simple.

Delisle was a moving target during his time in the military.  His career is often described this way: he joined the navy as a reservist in 1996, became a member of the regular forces in 2001 and was promoted to an officer rank in 2008. However, Delisle’s affiliation with the navy was actually only over the last five months of his career, and he followed a very circuitous route getting there.

His interview with Sergeant Jim Mofford of RCMP ‘C’ Division on 13 January 2012, which is available on-line as an attachment to a CBC News Nova Scotia article, shows that the story is much more complicated than press reports indicate.  Delisle states on page 13 that he was as an army reservist working for Three Intelligence Company in Halifax. The year-to-year nature of the reserve contract work caused financial problems and he filed for bankruptcy in February 1998, after his divorce in May 1997.  On page 22 he provides more information about his background, “I worked at Land Forces Atlantic Area as a corporal doing collation duties.”  He goes on to explain that he transferred to the regular force army in 2001, attending the Basic Intelligence Course in Kingston the same year.  Delisle continued to serve in Halifax with the army and was eventually promoted to sergeant in November 2006.  He was subsequently posted to the Strategic Joint Staff in Ottawa in 2007.  He was then selected to commission from the ranks and was posted to CFB Kingston to finish his academic degree, most likely at RMC, before attending the joint Intelligence Officer Course.  He was posted back to Halifax to Land Forces Atlantic Area.  Delisle states clearly that his affiliation with navy started after that point:  “After that, I was a navy guy and I switched my uniform from army to navy, because the only way to get posted back to family, with my four kids, was to be navy.”  Therefore, it was only in August of 2011, when he joined his first naval unit, HMCS Trinity, that Delisle became part of the naval service.

So, between 2001 and 2011, Delisle went from being an army enlisted reservist in Halifax, transferred to the regular force with the army and got into the intelligence trade, was posted to Ottawa, where he was selected for commissioning from the ranks, was posted to Kingston for academic education and professional training, was posted back to Halifax, then transferred to the navy, and was employed as a junior naval officer analyst in Trinity.  That is a lot of movement and change of status in a relatively short career.

Delisle must have had a strong recommendation from his last army commanding officer in Ottawa before being subjected to a range of administrative reviews and assessments in the commissioning process.  That he got through it is an indication that his career performance had been exceptional to that point.  But, it is tough to get a good ‘read’ on a subordinate without a continuous period of observation by a single supervisor.  Rapid and frequent geographic movement plus job and classification transfers are all symptoms of stress and an institution struggling to deal with challenges of money, resources and time.  Although naval personnel shortages are now being addressed, getting people with the right qualifications and experience in the proper jobs remains a systematic shortcoming.

The naval divisional system is supposed to detect things like marital and financial problems and it has programs in place to assist the member in dealing with them.  Many naval reservists are working on year-to-year contracts, making them vulnerable to the same stresses that landed Delisle in his predicament.  By the time that Delisle came to the navy, it seems no record of his past problems were transferred with him when he arrived onboard.  However, the RCMP report shows that Delisle himself had voiced them clearly beforehand.  On page 41 Delisle states: “[The pain of my divorce] is not gone.  Its been since 2008 [when it was finalized], and I went on a wild spree of dating and meeting women and being outside my normals (sic: normal behaviours?).  And, … and I told my boss at the time, I died that day.  Major [refer to original source for name], I told him.”  So, Delisle had stated openly to his army superior that he was suffering, but that information was not forwarded and he had only been with the navy for less than five months when he was arrested.  That, apparently, was not enough time for his naval supervisors to dig into his past and discover his problems.

That the navy accepts intelligence officers from such ‘purple’ (joint) lines as the army reserve indicates there is a problem generating sufficient and suitable candidates within the navy.  Why are the naval reserves not providing these candidates?  This should be a major alarm bell.  While it may be acceptable to train naval personnel together with members of the other services, both for the sakes of cost efficiency and joint effectiveness, this case should prove that there are other issues at stake when people transfer into the navy to perform important duties using highly classified systems.  The navy needs to address its own intelligence needs and ensure that the national organization is responsive to naval requirements and that the graduates are the products of naval professional standards of conduct and discipline.

The navy also needs to pay sufficient attention to those joining or serving within its units from other services.  The Naval Environmental Training Program (NETP) is only given to those serving onboard ships, and it is focused on training.  It is not an indoctrination program.  Delisle avoided this by serving in Trinity, and would never have gone to sea because of his problems with diabetes.  The navy as an institution is more than a collection of ships and the people in them.  The health of the entire organization is dependant upon service identity and having trust that everyone within its ranks is motivated by the same traditions and ethos.  Simply wearing the uniform does not, as it seems obvious now, make one a sailor.  Delisle was a ‘weak link’, as Dan Leger asserts, and the navy made it easy for him to join and, by doing so, made the whole institution weaker.  The Delisle case shows that something important was missing from his naval identity, and it could have made a lot of difference to the final outcome had he been properly taken into the ways of the navy.