In terms of national crises, having a high-ranking intelligence official accused of selling state secrets is a pretty big one. And that’s the situation Canada finds itself in right now.
On September 13, the RCMP announced they had arrested one of their own—Cameron Ortis, the director of the police force's National Intelligence Coordination Centre. Ortis faces seven charges that come from both the Criminal Code and the Security of Information Act (SOIA)—the act that governs national security concerns surrounding intelligence.
As Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst turned academic and host of the Intrepid Podcast who did an in-depth episode on Ortis, told VICE, the whole thing looks like “a big deal.” To put it bluntly, if you were to make a list of people in Canada you wouldn’t want to be involved in espionage, Ortis would rank pretty damn high. And it’s not just Canada at risk, because of his position and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance other countries—which include the U.S. and the U.K.—could be dragged into this as well.
"By virtue of the positions he held, Mr. Ortis had access to information the Canadian intelligence community possessed. He also had access to intelligence coming from our allies both domestically and internationally," RCMP commissioner, Brenda Lucki said in a statement Monday.
Lucki’s statement added that if the allegations were “proven true, [they] are extremely unsettling.”
So yeah, a big deal indeed. For us all to know this big ol’ deal a bit better, we thought we would offer a cheat sheet. So what do we know?
Who is he?
We know Cameron Ortis was a respected member of the Canadian intelligence community and that he occupied a unique role at the RCMP. The 47-year-old man from Abbotsford who currently resides in Ottawa man was a Ph.D. graduate at UBC, and former colleagues and mentors describe him as a studious man who was the last person you would accuse of espionage.
However, as CBC uncovered, under the polished exterior may have existed some darkness, or at least someone terrible with money, as it is alleged he was $90,000 in debt in 2013. What kind of debt is unknown.
Some of Ortis’ academic work focused on cybersecurity. It’s been reported that he rose quickly through the ranks of the RCMP. According to his LinkedIn profile, Ortis worked with the RCMP since 2007 and spoke Mandarin. Other outlets have reported that over the years Ortis worked on cases regarding Russian money laundering, and at times was a close advisor of former RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson.
All the experts VICE spoke to urged caution from reading too much into Ortis’ background and the languages he speaks. People have jumped to conclusions that his Mandarin skills mean he’s leaking to the Chinese, and since he worked on a Russian money laundering case, he’s working for the Russians.
The truth at the moment is far less sexy—we just don’t know. Sorry.
What did he have access to?
Ortis was an intelligence director for the RCMP and had a unique position of having access to a plethora of intelligence. As Carvin explains Ortis was in a privileged position where he was able to access intelligence from other agencies to inform RCMP operations.
“He was in a unit essentially walled off from the criminal investigators. [The info] was used to brief the senior staff and to generally inform the direction of the criminal investigations,” Carvin said. “So, bad news for us, he had access to not only the criminal investigations, but also the intelligence that would have been coming in from places like CSIS, CSE, and our allies.”
“There are very few places in the Canadian security and intelligence world where an insider threat poses the potential to do this kind of damage,” adds Jessica Davis, the president and principal consultant at Insight Threat Intelligence.
Canada has an intelligence-sharing deal with four other countries—Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States—called the Five Eyes. The agreement means that intelligence from one country can flow to the others to aid investigations or what have you. That flow led right to Cameron Ortis.
Davis points out that Ortis had access to information that, if leaked, could put lives of Canadian and allied intelligence officers as well as critical Canadian infrastructure at risk but, at the moment, we still don’t know what information was involved. The thing is, we don’t have any idea of what was leaked and at this point, it’s all speculation.
“There's no underestimating the amount of damage the information that he could have taken could cause," said Davis, who added that without knowing more details, “it's really difficult to say what the actual impact could be.”
What is he charged with?
Ortis faces seven charges. Two of them come from the criminal code of Canada and five from SOIA.
The Criminal Code charges are breach of trust and unauthorized use of a computer. As Leah West, a lecturer in national security law and counterterrorism, explains, the latter charge, in the past, has typically been used for people who use government databases inappropriately—like inappropriately downloading documents or attempting to cover one's their tracks.
The charges that have raised the most eyebrows is the fact that Ortis faces five charges that come from the rarely used SOIA. One charge from section 14 of SOIA comes from 2015. This charge relates to a person who has been bound to secrecy due to his role in the intelligence community sharing “special operations information.”
“Special Operations information is defined in the act as a closed list of information, and includes such things as human sources, covert techniques and methods, and military operation. So it's highly secure,” explains West.
The other charges, which come from activities Ortis is alleged to have made last year, come from Section 22 of SOIA. West explains these relate to “preparing to do something.”
“That's important because those provisions cover preparing to share either information that the government was trying to protect, or special operations information, specifically with a foreign entity, or a terrorist organization," said West. "He wasn't charged with sharing information with a foreign entity or a terrorist organization.”
“That doesn't mean that he didn't, but that's not what he's charged with.”
How did we get here and what now?
Global News has reported authorities began looking at Ortis as a result of an international police investigation into another Canadian, Vincent Ramos. Ramos was the CEO of Phantom Secure, a company that provided encrypted cell phones. An investigation into the man found that his phones were used to facilitate drug trafficking. After a lengthy investigation, Ramos was arrested, convicted and is currently serving a nine-year sentence in the States.
According to the report, the investigation into Ramos led them to some classified RCMP information. The FBI asked RCMP to help and from there the ball started to roll. Authorities were able to track back who had access to the information and the Sensitive and Internal Investigations Unit was called in to lead an investigation into Ortis. This includes, as the CBC reports, a covert sweep of Ortis’ residence in which they found he had handwritten notes on how to share documents without leaving a trace.
It’s been reported that Ortis’ arrest is just the beginning of a large international police operation that will see arrests across the globe. At the moment, RCMP are releasing few details into their investigation of Ortis and we still do not know what he is going to plead. As the experts explain, prosecuting Ortis could be a headache for authorities as a lot of the charges are surrounding confidential information.
No information on motive has been released and Ortis is expected back in court on September 20. Hopefully, then we’ll learn a little more.
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