A senior RCMP official arrested in a case that sent shockwaves through Canada’s 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.
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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.
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.
Another source referred to the case as “serious spy s–t.”
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Ortis appeared briefly at the Ottawa courthouse on Friday.
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 shouldn’t be communicating it to.”
He is scheduled to return to court on Sept. 20.
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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.
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.
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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.”
As a civilian member of the RCMP’s 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 we’ve ever seen in Canada,” said Stephanie Carvin, a national security expert and assistant professor at Carleton University.
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At Ortis’s Ottawa condo, residents were unaware their neighbour had been arrested. One did not even know Ortis worked for the RCMP.
Described as an Ottawa intellectual and academic, Ortis earned a PhD 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 PhD 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.”
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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 Paulson’s 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.
The source described him as professional and competent.
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Ortis is charged with:
- Section 14(1) of the Security of Information Act
- Section 22(1)(b) of the Security of Information Act
- Section 22(1)(e) of the Security of Information Act
- Section 122 of the Criminal Code
- Section 342.1(1) of the Criminal Code
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 wouldn’t 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.”
Potentially ‘one of the worst cases of espionage’: expert
Ortis faces up to 37 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
Jeffrey Delisle, a navy intelligence officer arrested in 2012 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 Lloyd’s Register Canada, which was subcontracted by Irving Shipbuilding to work on the design phase of Canada’s Arctic patrol vessels.
The case has not yet gone to trial.