Senior counsel with the Public Prosecution Service John MacFarlane speaks with the media outside of the Ottawa Court House on Sept. 13, 2019, in Ottawa.
The RCMP have charged one of its highest-ranking intelligence officials with illegally storing and communicating classified information, raising fears of a massive security breach at the national police force that stands to affect the operations of law-enforcement agencies in Canada and around the world.
RCMP intelligence official charged under national secrets act
Current and retired members of the RCMP were shocked by the arrest of Cameron Jay Ortis, who was director-general of the National Intelligence Coordination Centre. The 47-year-old faces seven charges under the Security of Information Act and the Criminal Code in relation to alleged infractions between 2015 and 2019.
According to documents filed in court, he is charged under the act with obtaining and preparing information for the purpose of communication with a foreign entity or terrorist group, as well as communicating or confirming special operational information to an unspecified entity or individual. He is also charged under the Criminal Code with breach of trust.
Mr. Ortis was arrested on Thursday and appeared in court on Friday. His position at the RCMP provided him with access to sensitive information from the police force, other Canadian law-enforcement agencies and from allied police and intelligence services around the world, current and retired RCMP officials said.
Over the span of his career Ortis had some of the highest access to classified and allied information within the RCMP, said Davis. Sources who are familiar with his work said he would have had knowledge of code words and operations.
Security experts said the charges will affect Canadas reputation and cause concerns among allies, including questions over what information was leaked to whom and whether any investigations were compromised.
Mr. Ortis, who speaks Mandarin, according to his Linkedin profile, was a rare civilian to rise up the ranks of criminal intelligence at the RCMP. His PhD thesis at the University of British Columbia dealt with cybersecurity in East Asia.
John MacFarlane, a senior counsel with the Public Prosecution Service, said in court that Mr. Ortis obtained, stored, processed sensitive information.
The Crown believes that he intended to communicate that information to people he shouldnt be communicating to, Mr. MacFarlane said during a hearing in an Ottawa courtroom.
Former intelligence officials say the damage done to national security could have been enormous given the four-year span of the alleged infractions.
"These are kind of the Crown jewels of national security intelligence," said Leah West, who teaches national security law at Carleton's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
Hes had long-term, extensive access to intelligence, said Jessica Davis, a former senior strategic intelligence analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
She said that as an RCMP director-general, Mr. Ortis would have had access to some of the most sensitive secrets controlled by Canadian police. He would have also frequently had exchanges with other federal security agencies.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer tweeted that news of the charges is "extremely concerning" and called it "another reminder of the threats we face from foreign actors.
This is the first person permanently bound by secrecy ever to be charged with disclosing special operations information, said Leah West, a former federal lawyer who is now a lecturer on national-security issues at Carleton University.
Special operations information is Crown-jewel information, she explained, adding that federal legislation describes it as information that can relate to people acting as sources for intelligence agencies or as information related to military campaigns.
Richard Fadden, a former director of CSIS, said its unusual for someone who has worked in intelligence in Canada to face such charges, saying people in this area undergo exhaustive screening.
MacFarlane said that the charges Ortis faces have a "reverse onus" rule on bail, meaning the accused has to convince a court bail should be granted.
He said such a role usually requires a lot of collaboration with other security agencies, which will force the RCMP to engage with other agencies in Canada and around the world to assess and contain any damage.
West said it's telling that he wasn't charged under section 16 or 17 of the act, which deal with sharing information with a foreign government.
They need to figure out what information is at issue and the question then is, whose information is it? he said. Was any allied or Five Eyes information at issue? If the answer to that is no, that is good.”
Mr. Ortis was well known throughout Canadas policing and law-enforcement communities. Sources who have been granted confidentiality by The Globe because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the matter said Mr. Ortis made a presentation on foreign interference in Canadian elections at a meeting of law-enforcement officials in Charlottetown in May.
Im shocked beyond words, Mr. Paulson said on Friday, adding he had no other comment on the matter.
Reached on Friday at his home in Abbotsford, B.C., Mr. Ortiss father, Dave Ortis, said he and his wife, Loretta, were aware of the charges against their son but declined to comment on them or confirm when they had last spoken to or seen him.
"I was, of course, made aware of the arrest," he said. "I can assure you the authorities are taking this extremely seriously."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Friday he was made aware of the arrest. “I can assure you that the authorities are taking this extremely seriously, but you might understand I have no comment to make on this issue right now.
The Crown is requesting Mr. Ortis be denied bail. He appeared via video link from the Ottawa courthouses holding cells, saying very little during his brief appearance. His next court appearance will be on Sept. 20.
Mr. Ortis PhD thesis was entitled Bowing to Quirinus: Compromised Nodes and Cyber Security in East Asia. In his acknowledgements, he thanked his parents and faculty, and added: I must also thank the anonymous individuals in East Asia and North America who graciously agreed to speak on the issues addressed in this study.
In 2013, naval intelligence officer Jeffrey Delisle was sentenced to 20 years in prison for selling military secrets to Russia from 2007 to 2011. The matter came to light when the FBI tipped off CSIS to the infractions.
With reports from Steven Chase, Colin Freeze, Ian Bailey, Robert Fife, Michelle Zilio and Wendy Stueck
Cameron Ortis is expected in an Ottawa courtroom at 2pm today. Security experts are saying what he is alleged to have done is massive. As DG of the RCMPs intelligence unit, he would have had TOP SECRET access to all RCMP operations on the ground. This is "HUGE."
A senior RCMP official arrested in a case that sent shockwaves through Canadas national security community on Friday was uncovered by U.S. authorities who tipped off Ottawa, a source told Global News.
Cameron Ortis faces seven counts dating as far back as 2015, including breach of trust, communicating special operational information, and obtaining information in order to pass it to a foreign entity.
The charges did not specify which foreign entity or what type of information, but a source said he had amassed terabytes of information, including a list of undercover operatives, when he was arrested in Ottawa on Thursday.
READ MORE: Canadian infrastructure sector made aware of potential effects of insider cyberthreats
The source said Ortis was identified when U.S. authorities flipped a suspect who gave him up. His arrest is believed to be part of a wider operation involving NATO allies and the Five Eyes — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and U.K.
[Ortis] is a civilian cyber security guy in the RCMP and the combination of charges implies hes accused of either hacking or just plain out stealing sensitive info through digital networks presumably and passing it along, Prutschi said.
A source said the case involved large quantities of information, which could compromise an untold number of investigations. The source said Ortis had allegedly tried to sell information in 2015, and was gearing up to sell more.
John MacFarlane, Public Prosecution Service of Canada official, said Ortis was accused of having obtained, stored, processed sensitive information we believe with the intent to communicate it to people that he shouldnt be communicating it to.
WATCH BELOW: Trudeau says he was of course made aware of the arrest of a senior RCMP official, but declined further comment
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked by reporters on the Liberal campaign trail on Friday whether he could reassure Canadians that the national interest had not been compromised.
This isnt regular intelligence. This is about how we acquire intelligence, Richard Fadden told Don Martin on CTVs Power Play. It is about who is involved and who our informants are.
He initially walked away from reporters but later briefly addressed the matter, saying he was of course made aware of the case but could not comment.
Federal officials were tight-lipped about the case, with most declining to comment and referring questions to the RCMP.
The RCMP said the charges stemmed from activities alleged to have occurred during his tenure as an RCMP employee.
In 2012, Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Paul Delisle was convicted under the Security of Information Act for transmitting sensitive data to Russian agents for about five years before his arrest.
As a civilian member of the RCMPs strategic intelligence unit, Ortis had extensive access to the full range of operational intelligence, according to a source.
Because of his unique role, he knew about every major national security investigation at home and abroad, a source said.
If this person succeeded, this could potentially be one of the worst cases of espionage that weve ever seen in Canada, said Stephanie Carvin, a national security expert and assistant professor at Carleton University.
At Ortiss Ottawa condo, residents were unaware their neighbor had been arrested. One did not even know Ortis worked for the RCMP.
The former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) said this case could potentially impact a number of departments and maybe other countries.
Described as an Ottawa intellectual and academic, Ortis earned a Ph.D in international relations from the University of British Columbia in 2006 and subsequently held a postdoctoral appointment at the Centre of International Relations before moving to Ottawa.
“Cameron never provided details of his employment with the RCMP,” said Prof. Brian Job of UBC’s political science department, who was his Ph.D supervisor.
“Nothing in my experience with Cameron would lead me to suspect his alleged involvement in the activities for which he charged. Indeed, the exact opposite is true. I am deeply shocked by the news and will have no further comment, as the matter proceeds through the courts.”
According to his LinkedIn profile, Ortis speaks Mandarin and has worked as an advisor to the government of Canada for 12 years.
Sources with knowledge of national security investigations described him as former RCMP Comm. Bob Paulsons most elite adviser on issues related to national security and sensitive investigations.
They added he was likely the only civilian to have achieved the position of director general of intelligence, a role that gave him influence over RCMP counter-intelligence operations.
At times, he worked extensively with FINTRAC, and once focused on Somalia, one of the countries that has attracted Canadian extremists to fight in the terrorist group Al-Shabab, another source said.
Most of the charges are under a section of the Security of Information Act that refers to retaining information in preparation for illegally providing it to a foreign entity or terrorist group.
So this is where we’re a little unsure, Prof. Michael Nesbitt, a national security law expert, wrote in a Twitter thread, adding the charges were unclear over whether Ortis actually passed on the information.
While that wouldnt necessarily matter at trial, it had important implications for Canada, the University of Calgary professor wrote.
For us, we’re all surely concerned about whether he was pre-empted, or whether he gave up important information. I’m sure the RCMP has likewise been concerned and there are a host of intelligence agencies watching right now.
Jeffrey Delisle, a navy intelligence officer arrested in 2001 after he was caught selling secrets to the Russian embassy in Ottawa, has already been paroled despite being sentenced to life.
In 2013, the RCMP arrested Quin Quentin Huang in 2013 for allegedly trying to pass secrets about Canadian patrol ships to the Chinese government.
He worked at Lloyds Register Canada, which was subcontracted by Irving Shipbuilding to work on the design phase of Canadas Arctic patrol vessels.
Due to the sensitive and/or legal subject matter of some of the content on globalnews.ca, we reserve the ability to disable comments from time to time.