Late in the afternoon on Tuesday, Nov. 14, a trim, middle-aged man walked into Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Montreal to catch a flight overseas.
Concealed under his shirt was a travel pouch the size of a postcard that held a forged Ontario birth certificate identifying him as Paul William Hampel, age 40, born in Toronto.
The shortwave radio, two digital cameras, three cellphones and $7,800 in European and North American currencies he carried were meant for an extended trip to the Balkans. But he had walked into a trap.
Instead of boarding his flight, he was pulled aside and arrested by Canada Border Service Agency officers working in co-operation with spy-catchers from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
The arrest, approved five days earlier by two federal Cabinet ministers, was the culmination of a probe by the CSIS counterintelligence branch, which was convinced the man passing himself off as a Canadian businessman was actually an elite Russian spy.
For the next six weeks, the highly trained Russian intelligence officer gave up little about himself as he was held at a detention facility near Montreal, waiting to be escorted to Moscow.
While he did volunteer his name, it was almost certainly as fake as the Paul Hampel pseudonym he had adopted after slipping into Canada in the mid- 1990s to begin his espionage operation.
But his arrest may still prove instructive in the fight against Russia’s resurgent spy program. The electronics he was carrying are no doubt being carefully dissected for clues of Russian spycraft. And while he was careful, “Mr. Hampel” left a trail that may shed some light on how Russian espionage is being conducted by the new wave of intelligence officers that have entered the business since the demise of the KGB.
“For this reason, he represents a possible gold mine for CSIS,” said Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto intelligence expert and past president of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies.
Experts and officials believe the Russian’s mission was not to spy on Canada, but rather to assume the identity of a Canadian so he could travel to the Balkans and collect intelligence for the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, or SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service.
But during the decade he lived a false life in Montreal, “Mr. Hampel” did damage to Canada as well: He stole the birth certificate number of an unwitting Ontario man; corrupted the passport system; used fake credit cards; ran a shell company; exploited the trust of those around him; and brought suspicion upon Canadian travellers by impersonating one as he spied.
“This case illustrates once again–as various previous cases running back into the 1930s have amply demonstrated — that the Russian intelligence services value and continue to exploit Canadian cover for intelligence operations,” said Dan Mulvenna, a former RCMP counterintelligence officer.
The Hampel case has its origins in 1991, when the SVR was created to replace the notorious KGB. Following in the tradition of the KGB, the SVR planted officers in Russian embassies and consulates, where they exploited their diplomatic immunity to spy on their host countries.
But embassies are closely watched by counter-espionage agencies such as CSIS. To get around this, the Russians also deployed what are known as “illegals,” spies who live abroad under false identities, called “legends.”
A division of SVR called Directorate S trains and dispatches illegals, whose identities are provided by Russian diplomatic staffers called Line N officers, who have been known to search Canadian graveyards for convincing names for their spies.
Not long after its formation, the SVR sent three illegals to Canada — two to Toronto and one to Montreal. The Toronto pair were married and called themselves Ian and Laurie Lambert. An SVR Line N officer working out of the Russian embassy provided support to them, including their names, which belonged to Canadian children who had died as infants. But they were caught out when they applied for passports.
CSIS put them under surveillance and about a year later, in 1996, the “Lamberts, ” whose real names were Dmitryn Olshevskiy and Yelena Olshevskaya, were arrested and deported.
But Mr. Hampel managed to stay under the radar. After entering the country he worked at low-wage jobs while he built his legend, at one point listing his occupation as “lifeguard.” In 1995, he used a forged Ontario birth certificate to get a Canadian passport, the first of three he would obtain.
“He asked me if I would sign as a reference for his passport,” said a Montreal landlord who once rented an apartment to the man. (He is not being named for his protection.) “I didn’t know anything about him. It was in 2002. I didn’t know anything that was going on. I didn’t know anything about the guy.”
In 1997, Mr. Hampel launched a company called Emerging Markets Research, which he registered in Ireland with initial assets of $2.3-million. And then his travels began.
“I started travelling to that part of Europe in the mid-90s as an emerging markets analyst, focused on business,” he wrote in his self-published book of photographs, My Beautiful Balkans. He visited Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia. If he did any business, there is no record of it. He did, however, take a lot of photographs.
To acquaintances, he began portraying himself as an amateur photographer entranced by the beauty of the landscape. From 2001 until 2003, he lived on and off in a hotel in Belgrade as he amassed his photos for a vanity book and a Web site, mybeautifulbalkans.com.
“I only knew that he was travelling a lot on his business and that he was a passionate amateur photographer,” said Igor Barandovski, who worked at the Belgrade photo lab where Mr. Hampel was a regular customer.
On his Web site, he wrote that, “Publishing this photo album is my way of giving emphasis to a simple point I consider key: For the people who live in the Balkans, the beauty of their land offers an extra reason to seek reconciliation.”
Based on his photographs, it is apparent he had a tendency to show up in countries during times of political and ethnic upheaval — Belgrade during the overthrow of its president, Skopje during the ethnic Albanian insurgency, Montenegro during the push for independence.
“Coincidence?” asked David Harris, a former CSIS officer. “If intelligence is his bag, his form of hiding in plain sight takes us back to the glory days of other — far more literate — journalist- spies, like Philby and Maugham.”
A tip triggered a probe by Canadian counter-intelligence investigators. CSIS officers scoured the country searching for the man, and finally found him. Just how they found him remains a closely guarded secret, but experts have speculated it was probably a combination of informants, intercepted communications and analysis of passport files.
Mr. Hampel was put under surveillance, but when investigators learned he was planning to travel again, they decided to move. They brought their evidence to Stockwell Day, the Public Safety Minister, and Monte Solberg, the Immigration Minister, who signed a security certificate on Nov. 9 declaring Mr. Hampel a foreign spy — the first time Ottawa had identified anyone that way in a decade.
Unaware he was about to be outed, Mr. Hampel updated his Web site that weekend, writing that he had decided to begin a new project: a book about the people of the Balkans to complement his previous book of landscape photos. “I’ll be hoping to have enough material accumulated over the next two seasons to start thinking about My Beautiful Balkans Book Tw o ,” he wrote.
Three days later, he was arrested.
After the National Post revealed the arrest in an exclusive report, Russia’s ambassador to Ottawa, Georgiy Mamedov, denied he was running a “spy shop” and said he knew nothing about the matter. One of his staff dismissed the report the man was Russian as “ridiculous.”
The embassy has refused repeated interview requests, but experts said the ambassador may have been telling the truth when he said he was unaware of Mr. Hampel. The SVR officers working out of Russia’s diplomatic posts in Canada, however, would have been in on it, and likely helped him with his fake identity.
Three weeks after the arrest, the man admitted he was Russian and said he wanted to go home as soon as possible. Federal Court Judge Pierre Blais upheld the government’s case and ordered his deportation.
“In a way, this is somewhat the stuff of spy movies,” Mr. Day told the Post in an interview. “But it is based on reality that some countries and some of their intelligence people will go to great ends to build what looks like a foolproof identity.
“And maybe not even to spy in Canada. But if you can build a foolproof Canadian identity, that would give you quite a bit of movement around the world.”