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Russian spy case had its documents lost, destroyed: Canada’s information watchdog

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Federal officials lost or possibly destroyed sensitive records about the case of a naval officer convicted of selling secrets to Russia, an investigation by Canada’s information commissioner has found.

The commissioner’s probe, which involved the country’s top public servant and the prime minister’s national-security adviser, left key questions unanswered because the classified records about the spy case could not be located.

The episode began seven years ago when The Canadian Press filed an Access to Information Act request with the Privy Council Office for briefing notes, emails and reports about the case of Jeffrey Delisle from a three-week period in the spring of 2013.

Delisle, a troubled junior naval officer, had been sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to passing classified western intelligence to Russia in exchange for cash on a regular basis for more than four years.

The access law, intended to ensure government transparency, allows people who pay a $5 fee to ask for a wide array of federal documents, with some specific exceptions.

The Privy Council Office, the apex of the federal bureaucracy, responded in August 2013 that the records concerning Delisle would be entirely withheld from release because they dealt with matters such as investigations, international relations and detection of subversive or hostile activities.

The Canadian Press complained the following month to the information commissioner, an ombudsman for users of the law who has the power to review documents and decide whether they have been properly withheld.

The events that followed were detailed this month in a letter to the news agency from information commissioner Caroline Maynard.

The commissioner’s office asked in 2013 for an uncensored copy of the files to examine and the Privy Council Office said arrangements would be made for an investigator to view the sensitive records on site.

However, it appears more than five years passed before the commissioner’s office followed up.

In July 2019, the deputy director of the Privy Council Office corporate-services branch told one of the commissioner’s investigators the documents had “most likely” been inadvertently destroyed.

Maynard then issued an order to Greta Bossenmaier, the national security and intelligence adviser to the prime minister at the time, to produce the records — a move aimed at determining whether they had indeed been purged.

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