The case first came to notice earlier this year. The allegation is that the naval officer, Jeffrey Paul Delisle, arrested in January, sold secrets to the Russians. This allegation is backed up, pathetically and circumstantially, with the information that two Russian envoys in Canada were recalled to Russia before the end of their service periods.
News coverage has been breathless but remarkably uninformative about specifics. This is the Sydney Morning Herald
Australia's High Commissioner to Canada, Louise Hand, was briefed by the Canadian government on the case shortly after Delisle's arrest on January 14.
Information released under Australian freedom of information laws shows Ms Hand discussed the case with Stephen Rigby, National Security Adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But her cabled report, classified ''secret - sensitive'' and sent to Canberra on January 30, has been withheld in full on national security grounds
Or, to put it another way, nobody is actually saying anything at all about what specific information was allegedly accessed and/or sold, or over what sort of time frame.
The high level intergovernmental response does mean that something has penetrated even the top of the wall of bureaucrats and PR people at those levels. Therefore the information is likely to have been high value and highly embarrassing to the Canadians.
Military intelligence may not be a contradiction in terms, but it’s starting to look like a serious misnomer. Again, a lower rank has had easy access to an entire intelligence stream. Signals officers, by definition, have access and know their systems. What they don’t know, usually, is how to handle secret codes. They don’t have the resources to deal with the information. The intelligence people receiving the information might well have those resources, but identifying high value information at the receiving end isn’t supposed to be easy, either.
A foreign power, looking for information, may have a pretty good idea where to look, however. Some intelligence operations become more visible because they facilitate responses to situations. You can infer that spy agencies are watching something because your opponent suddenly seems very well informed. Then all you need to do is check signals to figure out where that information is coming from.
That means these are serious allegations, and that significant compromising of security and intelligence operations has occurred. Hence the total blackout level of silence on the subject of what particular issues are involved.
The effect of a major breach of signals security could be quite dramatic. From the Australian perspective, for instance, this is very tricky. Australia’s security agencies have a lot of links with the security agencies of other nations across a large range of issues. Unravelling the tangle of possibilities will take a while, and “who knows what about what” is likely to be a major exercise in re-sorting operational security.
The “Russian” angle
If you assume Russia was the recipient of the information, there are some big issues to consider.
Russia’s highly competent security and intelligence agencies are quite capable of breaching security when they feel like it. They know how, and they’ve done it so many times before. In my opinion, Russian intelligence is still being seriously underrated, simply because of the end of the Cold War. This sunny view of the global intelligence environment is bizarre enough, but does anyone really think that a nation with that sort of intelligence capacity would simply do nothing with it?
There's another major issue- The fact that intelligence information is a very highly marketable commodity. The Russians may not need a particular piece of information themselves, but they can on-sell it and trade it for other information that they do want.
Then there’s the little matter of “entrepreneurial” espionage. Those who know how can set up a nice cottage industry with stolen information, sell it around the world and make big money out of it. It’s naïve to assume that this intelligence breach isn’t a possible goldmine for someone.
The other unseen issue is far from simple- Compromised methods. Signals intelligence varies in values. Some information has a short shelf life, but in other cases, discovering the type of communication and how it's communicated may be more valuable than the actual information. If you know how someone communicates, you know how to listen in.
Reinventing modern intelligence
In the long run, perhaps this case does have a good side- Somebody in Western military intelligence will have to start taking risks seriously. Twice, now, we’ve seen major intelligence operations compromised at grunt level for no good reason. The INT streams need to be monitored, access carefully managed, and the ability for one person to get whole messages in signals in any form obviously needs to be totally reviewed. Those are the basics.
The higher function of security, now, will have to involve getting politicians and decision makers on board with major revamps and reconfigurations of security. They need to understand the risks, as much as they need to understand intelligence issues.