News / Americas

US-Russian Spy Case Raises Alarms in Canada

Gary Thomas

The Russian and American spies have been swapped, but the case is far from over.  Security officials continue to evaluate how a Russian network was able to burrow into mainstream society.  The case has raised particular concern in Canada because foreign agents were able to assume Canadian identity.

Old habits seem to die hard.  Fake Canadian identification documents were the hallmark of many Cold War espionage cases, and at least four of the spies recently swapped back to Russia by the United States had either fake Canadian identities or had fraudulently obtained real Canadian identification documents.

Professor Wesley Wark, who teaches intelligence issues at the Munk Center for International Studies at the University of Toronto, says that is causing considerable soul-searching in Canadian security circles.

"For Canadians, part of the interest in this story is that, of course, a good number of these alleged captured Russian spies - many of whom seem to have confessed and may not be worthy of the label of alleged - many of them had carried or had constructed for themselves false Canadian legends," said Wesley Wark. "And certainly some head-shaking is going on in Canada about how that happened."

In intelligence lingo, a legend is the fictitious identity a spy assumes to burrow into society.  A new fake character is created, but the legend has to be based in fact, which entails getting documentation such as passport and driver's license.

The U.S.-Canadian border is long - 6,400 kilometers - and porous.  Until February 2008, one could cross the border by simply making an oral declaration of citizenship.  Now a passport or government-issued travel I.D. is required.  

Security analyst Fred Burton of the private intelligence firm Stratfor says foreign intelligence agencies and terrorist groups alike prefer Canadian or Irish identification documents because they allow for freer movement.

"Your ability to fly under the radar [escape detection] as a Canadian is much greater than it would be from certain other countries," said Fred Burton. "So you are going to look at this operationally and say, 'I cannot use a Russian because that obviously would ring the FBI bells.  I have a Homeland Security problem now.  I have No-Fly lists.  I have identity issues throughout the United States today.  So what is my path of least resistance?' And as you start looking at that you gravitate towards Canadians, the Irish."

In a case that was a precursor of the recent U.S. one, a man giving the name Paul William Hampel was arrested by Canadian authorities in 2006 with a fake Canadian birth certificate and passport.  He was accused of being a Russian spy.  Despite having no diplomatic status, he was not prosecuted but simply deported.

In some cases spies get real I.D. by getting a real birth certificate, usually of a dead infant.  Many years ago a Soviet spy was caught in Canada copying the names and birthdates of infants from gravestones.

Concern about false Canadian I.D. rose sharply after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, says intelligence expert Wesley Wark.

"We have had persistent concerns in this country, as other countries do, about passport security and the creation of fraudulent identities based on Canadian documentation," he said. "And we have made a lot of effort in the post 9/11 world to prevent that kind of thing happening because the attention was focused on terrorists getting a hold of good, clean Canadian passports and identities, and using them to travel around the world.  But now we see this phenomenon popping up again in espionage."

None of the 9/11 attackers crossed into the U.S. from Canada or had Canadian I.D.  But Ahmed Ressam, convicted in the so-called Millenium Plot to bomb Los Angeles airport in 1999, managed to get a fake Canadian passport even after being denied refugee status in Canada.  And the men, believed to be Israeli agents, who botched the assassination attempt of a Hamas leader in Jordan in 1997 were also carrying fake Canadian passports.

Stratfor's Fred Burton says such use of Canadian I.D. can heighten suspicion of all Canadians.

"These kinds of case set off a firestorm of blowback and meetings to determine whether or not the tables have been turned against you," he said. "If I am sitting now at the intelligence service of the Jordanian G.I.D. [General Intelligence Department], for example, and I am watching all this unfold, I am looking at, 'Hmmm, I wonder how many Canadians I have working here in the Kingdom?  Where are they working?  What are they doing?' So you are calling in your counterintelligence staff and saying, how do we know this is not occurring on our soil?

Late last year, Canadian police broke up a ring manufacturing counterfeit documents, including high-quality fake passports and U.S. residency cards.  Authorities in all countries are trying to crack down on fraudulent passport use by making the document tougher to forge.  But passport forgery remains a big and lucrative business.  The international police agency Interpol reported it had 11 million fake passports in its database as of the end of 2009.  

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