What Was an Alleged Russian Spy Doing in Canada?

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The first suspected Russian spy nabbed in Canada in a decade is stirring memories of cold war espionage in North America. The alleged Russian agent, known only as Paul William Hampel — the name on his bogus Canadian passport — was arrested Nov. 14 at Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport under a national security certificate signed only five days earlier by two senior Cabinet ministers in charge of public safety and immigration.

Hampel's arrest sent red-faced Canadian officials scrambling to defend what should have been beefed-up measures, including the Canadian passport system, put into place after 9/11 and after the 1999 arrest of Ahmed Ressam, the so-called Millennium Bomber who obtained a passport in Montreal using a forged baptismal certificate. When Hampel's detention was disclosed through a media leak, passport officials referred reporters to Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day's office, which declined to comment on grounds that the case is now in court.

Before Hampel was hustled off to a Montreal jail last week, agents with the Canada Border Services Agency seized his bogus Ontario provincial birth certificate, the passport that had been obtained with the phony birth certificate, $7,800 in five different currencies, encrypted prepaid cellphone cards and index cards containing information on Canadian history and civics. Hampel claimed to be a former lifeguard and travel consultant living in Montreal since 1999. Journalists found a website he had set up where he described his extensive travels abroad and published photos of the countries he visited, primarily in Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia. But during a brief court appearance, Hampel displayed a decidedly low level of proficiency in French, the language of work and industry in Quebec. When the judge asked him if he spoke French, he responded "un peu" — a bit — with an accent other than English.

According to evidence the Canadian Security Intelligence Service filed at Federal Court, Hampel, apparently aged 40, obtained three successive Canadian passports over seven years, the last one in 2002 after security had ostensibly been strengthened. The number on his 1971 Ontario birth certificate belonged to someone else, a legitimate citizen, the evidence said. His real identity has not been revealed; a Globe and Mail headline dubbed Hampel "The Man of Mystery on Docket DES-3-06." Even the landlord of his basement apartment could not remember him. The court summary of evidence said only that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had "reasonable grounds to believe" the man identifying himself as Hampel was a foreign national and a member of Russia's Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (SVR) spy agency.

Although the Canadian counter-intelligence service claims Hampel was an agent for the SVR, successor to the cold-war-era KGB, Canadian security experts say part of Hampel's espionage "legend" — the false identity and public trail he allegedly established through nefarious means — does not entirely match the old KGB modus operandi. KGB agents would be reluctant to use the records of an existing citizen for the foundation of a spy's fabricated life.

The Russian Ambassador to Canada, Georgiy Mamedov, attempted to brush off the allegations without directly denying them. "From my unenlightened position, this case is far from a slam dunk," he told CBC Newsworld. "I don't see anything that pins him to our door." Mamedov noted that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had recently rounded up 70 alleged Mafia kingpins and underlings in Montreal and speculated that Hampel might be a mobster. "We're not in the cold-war mode any longer, so I don't see any secrets that would be so important as to send some kind of illegal agent to Montreal," he said.

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