OTTAWA — An alleged spy who disappeared after being freed on bail in Cyprus assumed the identity of a dead five-year-old Canadian boy to obtain a passport, raising fresh questions about travel document security.
The apparent abuse of the Canadian passport system by Christopher Metsos underscores a persistent gap that has long prevented federal officials from easily verifying the data on birth and citizenship certificates, commonly used by applicants to obtain passports.
Solon Savva, deputy chief of mission at the Cypriot High Commission to Canada, confirmed statements from the Mediterranean island’s justice minister, Loucas Louca, that Metsos, 54, held “a valid, genuine Canadian passport” obtained using the identity of a Canadian who died at age five.
Savva said Louca learned the details from Renata Wielgosz, Canada’s ambassador to Cyprus and Greece.
The Cyprus Mail newspaper said the state broadcaster reported Metsos had obtained the passport through the Canadian Embassy in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The Foreign Affairs Department refuses to answer questions about the spy cases. Wielgosz did not respond to a request for comment.
Metsos is among 11 people — four of whom claim to be Canadian — indicted on charges of conspiring to act as secret agents in the United States on behalf of the Russian Federation.
The 10 suspects in custody pleaded guilty Thursday as part of a swap for prisoners in Russia.
But the mysterious Metsos remains at large.
The FBI says he often travelled to the United States to meet with agents and pay them on behalf of Moscow.
In 2004, a Russian government official surreptitiously slipped Metsos money in New York City, court documents say. Metsos then buried some cash in upstate New York and, two years later, two other members of the spy ring arrived to dig it up, the FBI alleges.
Metsos, arrested June 29, disappeared after a judge in Cyprus granted him bail.
Investigators allege a suspect claiming to be Donald Heathfield also assumed the identity of a dead Canadian child as part of his spy legend.
In searching a Cambridge, Mass., safe-deposit box, investigators found a photocopy of an Ontario birth certificate in the name of Donald Howard Graham Heathfield. The real Donald Heathfield died as an infant in Quebec.
In 2006, it emerged that an alleged Russian spy using the alias Paul William Hampel relied on a phoney Ontario birth certificate to successfully obtain passports in 1995, 2000 and 2002.
Auditor General Sheila Fraser had warned in 2005 that Passport Canada had no easy way of verifying proof of citizenship.
The passport agency noted its involvement in a planned National Routing System project that would create links to Citizenship and Immigration Canada and to provincial and territorial bureaus that hold birth and death records.
This would have enabled passport staff to detect fraudulent applications promptly.
In an emailed response to questions Thursday, Passport Canada said the National Routing System pilot project was put aside in 2007 because of other priorities. It added the agency continues to work with partners “to ensure the integrity of the passport issuance process,” and is actively exploring opportunities to come up with a means of automatically verifying applicant information.
Although Passport Canada is investigating the possible abuse of Canadian travel documents in the Russian spy cases, it has declined to comment further, citing the Privacy Act.
Canadian Security Intelligence Service director Dick Fadden said this week that foreign spies value the Canadian passport.
“I think one of the reasons that Canada’s so attractive is that we’re so well-viewed around the world, and our passports are accepted virtually anywhere, so there is a level of concern.”