Senior RCMP officials were hoping to bring their national intelligence program to “the next level” when they put Cameron Ortis in charge, according to an independent review conducted following his arrest.
Hoping to boost their reputation with international partners like the FBI, the RCMP made Ortis director-general of the National Intelligence Coordination Centre and told him to begin an overhaul.
They also wanted Ortis, a civilian with a PhD, to begin using highly classified information to improve the quality of RCMP intelligence, the review found.
But four years later, the plan to become an international intelligence player has fallen flat: Ortis is awaiting trial for alleged security breaches; three of his former staff are suing the government for alleged harassment; and an independent review commissioned by the RCMP has cited senior police officials responsible for the NICC for a “clear failure in leadership.”
“Mr. Ortis’ arrest certainly dealt a significant blow to the RCMP and that organization specifically,” said Jessica Davis, president of Insight Threat Intelligence and a former Canadian Security Intelligence Service analyst.
Although the report by consultant Alphonse MacNeil has not been publicly released, Global News has viewed key portions that show how deeply top RCMP officials had entrusted Ortis with access to sensitive intelligence.
It also discloses how senior Mounties placed Ortis at the helm of the NICC — and kept him there despite repeated complaints about his conduct by intelligence centre staff.
Arrested in September 2019, Ortis is now facing eight counts under the Security of Information Act, as well as breach of trust. Crown prosecutors allege he revealed secrets to an unnamed recipient and was planning to give more to a foreign entity.
His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. None of the current or former RCMP officers named in the report responded to requests for comment. The lawyer representing NICC employees similarly did not respond to Global News.
An RCMP spokesperson said MacNeil’s report “serves as a useful tool to help ensure our policies and procedures are properly aligned and updated to address employee and workplace concerns effectively and efficiently.”
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s spokesperson Mary-Liz Power called the allegations against Ortis “serious and concerning” but said Canadians could have confidence in their security agencies.
The report identifies for the first time who made Ortis responsible for RCMP intelligence, the sensitive assignment they entrusted him with and how senior officers allegedly failed to responded to complaints against him.
The RCMP launched the NICC on April 1, 2013 with 35 intelligence officers, analysts and managers assigned to three areas: Integration, Intelligence Priorities and the Coordination Unit, the report said.
“Former Commissioner Bob Paulson wanted to increase the ‘intelligence posture’ within the RCMP to make it comparable to their Five Eyes partners,” the report said, referring to the alliance of Canada, the U.K., the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.
Its mandate was to set up a “comprehensive intelligence system which effectively identified emerging threats, operational opportunities and gaps, while mitigating the risk of duplication,” according to MacNeil’s report.
At a three-day planning workshop in January 2014, Todd Shean, who was then assistant commissioner for federal policing, said the centre had “a great team that is motivated and eager to move the yardsticks further on intelligence.”
When the officer in charge of the NICC retired in February 2016, Shean picked Ortis to not only head the centre but also to “bring in highside information,” the report said.
Highside is another term for classified information, obtained from intelligence shared by Canada’s allies, and including so-called “signals intelligence” collected in foreign nations, and sensitive information gained from human sources that work with Canada’s allies.
“They were looking for someone to ‘overhaul’ the program and that would start using highside information,” the report said.
“Shean suggested that Mr. Ortis take over the NICC and D/Commr. (Mike) Cabana thought it was a good idea,” according to the report.
“A/Commr. Shean explained that placing Mr. Ortis in charge of the NICC and integrating highside information into the criminal intelligence area would bring the NICC and RCMP intelligence to the next level.
“Mr. Ortis said he would do it and was excited about it.”
Ortis had joined the RCMP as a civilian member in 2007 after completing his PhD in cybersecurity and Asia at the University of B.C.
According to sources, before being tapped to head the NICC, in 2015 Ortis had been leading a small RCMP intelligence team called Operational Results (OR), which consisted of eight to 12 members, including academics with specialized skills.
Former deputy commissioner Mike Cabana told MacNeil that under Ortis the operational results intelligence team “was doing some amazing things and they were wondering about the potential of properly using highside in criminal investigations.”
At the time, Paulson “had a significant interest in the role of civilians in the RCMP” and was even considering opening a civilian stream at the RCMP training academy, according to MacNeil’s report.
“The RCMP was looking at other organizations such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and how they utilized civilians as leaders in their organization,” MacNeil wrote.
Senior RCMP officials wanted Ortis to incorporate “highside” information into the NICC, something that had not been done before.
Davis told Global News that she believed the RCMP was trying to figure out how to use such intelligence to set big-picture priorities and identify areas to focus on for investigations.
“So generally, what that probably means is that organization was using classified, or highside, information to inform decisions and priorities — where the RCMP could direct investigations,” said Davis, who previously worked for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
She said she would be surprised if the RCMP used highside to assist specific investigations because it is challenging to use intelligence as evidence in Canadian courts.
Upon his arrival in the NICC in March 2016, Ortis “talked of transforming the NICC into an all-source intelligence unit and providing the analysts with new and exciting training opportunities,” the report said.
“This was well-received and the analysts were eager to work.
“However, early on, the majority of the senior analysts believed the NICC was no longer a respectful workplace consistent with the RCMP’s core values and they believed their sense of value had been degraded.”
Just four months after Ortis took over, Supt. Marie-Claude Arsenault met with Shean and told him morale at the NICC was “very low and employees did not feel valued. They felt their skills and education were being challenged,” the review said.
Shean dismissed her concerns, telling her he “had to deal with a harassment complaint in Witness Protection and did not want to deal with another harassment complaint,” the review said. He told her to “keep an eye on things” and let him know if they did not improve.
In a civil suit filed in August, Dayna Young, an RCMP intelligence analyst since 2008, alleged Ortis had said he did not like her and considered her work “garbage.”
Another analyst, Michael Vladars, had worked at the Privy Council Office and the Canada Border Services Agency before joining the NICC, but Ortis said he had “no understanding of intelligence” and asked why he was even hired, the lawsuit alleges.
The work of Francisco Chaves was dismissed as “horrible” and “garbage” by Ortis, the suit alleges, adding that the intelligence supervisor was told he was “incapable of doing his job,” and his dedication to the RCMP was questioned.
“The defendant’s actions and inactions not only resulted in its failure to protect the plaintiffs but the failure to identify, intervene in, and prevent Mr. Ortis’ criminal activities at an earlier stage,” the suit alleges.
The government has not yet responded to the suit in court, and the allegations have not been proven. The RCMP said it was “committed to promoting a healthy, diverse and professional workplace.”
Arsenault again spoke to Shean about the NICC on Dec. 22, 2016, briefing him on the “demeaning, judgmental and condescending” attitude towards employees and managers, according to the review. She said it amounted to harassment.
On Jan. 13, 2017, a group of NICC employees sent a letter to Ortis, and copied it to Shean and Arsenault. Afraid to sign their names, they instead wrote they represented “a majority of the longer-standing intelligence analysts within the NICC.”
At a management meeting that month, Shean, who is now the director of corporate security at JD Irving after retiring from the RCMP, told managers they “were paid to deal with the issues and not to go to him to solve their problems,” the review said, summarizing Arsenault’s account.
Paula Dionne replaced Shean as assistant commissioner in May 2017 and was given a copy of a followup letter to Ortis written by employees.
“The letter indicated that things had gotten worse since the first letter,” according to the review.
Meanwhile, the RCMP sent in a specialist who attempted to resolve the workplace conflict between Ortis and the employees. But the specialist decided to suspend those efforts due to concerns about exposing the employees in question. The conflict management practitioner called it “one of the worst cases she had dealt with,” the review found.
Aware their concerns had been ignored, employees were “looking at leaving” the NICC, and possibly the RCMP, the report said.
According to MacNeil’s review, NICC employee concerns included that Ortis was being protected by senior brass.
“We all felt it was the old boys club, friends of Paulson … at the top of the RCMP and that’s why nothing was done,” it said. “My grievance was never dealt with; I am afraid they have been directed to not deal with the grievance in the hope I will go away.”
Paulson did not respond to a request for comment about the findings of the MacNeil report. But in September, he told Global News that while he had a friendly relationship with Ortis and was impressed with him, he had never protected him from complaints.
“I never received any complaints about Cam and I was never advised of any complaints about Cam,” he said.
Paulson was replaced by Commissioner Brenda Lucki in 2017.
“I note that up until his publicly announced arrest I had no inkling that he was suspected of having done these criminal acts or that he was managing poorly or that he was a bully or had harassed anyone.”
“I can’t for a second imagine that if anyone had some information — or even a mild suspicion — about Cam’s alleged illicit behaviour that they wouldn’t have acted immediately and directly to intercede.”
But the report said senior RCMP officials below Paulson were aware of the problems at the NICC.
Before moving to a new position, Arsenault met with Dionne on June 15, 2017 to discuss the problems at the NICC, the report said.
“She started to discuss the morale issues in the NICC when A/Commr. Dionne said she did not understand why the employees wanted to remain anonymous. She added, ‘It must be because they are CMs (civilian members) because RMs (regular members) would not do this,’” the review said.
“She proceeded to refer to the CMs as being too sensitive. Supt. Arsenault disagreed with her and sensed at that point that the meeting would not be productive. Supt. Arsenault continued to explain the situation which included negative and critical behaviour, bullying, and the fear of reprisal.”
The report said that to ensure Dionne was clear about what was going on, Arsenault followed up with an email. But Dionne said she “was never copied on any harassment complaints from the NICC,” the review report added.
“She knew that Mr. Ortis had been brought in to change things in the NICC. When she asked him about the letter from the analysts he said he was given a mandate to clean up the program and those employees ‘moved aside’ were upset.”
The deputy commissioner at the time, Gilles Michaud, thought NICC employees were in “revolt,” the review noted.
“He believed the concern was around changes Mr. Ortis was trying to make as he attempted to up their capability and some employees were threatened by the new paradigm.”
While this was going on, the RCMP was desperately trying to figure out who had allegedly leaked sensitive details to the target of an investigation who had been arrested in Washington state, Vincent Ramos.
The file, known as Phantom Secure, was considered a win for the NICC, and an indication of its potential.
“Shean noted the NICC was having success … (redacted) one of their most prominent files was Phantom Secure. The NICC was proving itself … and was making inroads in setting tactical priorities.”
When the investigation led back to the NICC, Ortis was arrested on Sept. 12, 2019.
In December, Deputy Commissioner Mike Duheme met with NICC employees and told them he was ordering an independent review. After conducting dozens of interviews, MacNeil submitted his report on May 11.
The MacNeil report concluded there had been a failure in leadership and that RCMP policies were inadequate.
“In the case of the NICC, the leadership failure definitely impacted morale and productivity but even more importantly had a lasting negative impact on employees that is still being felt today,” he wrote.
While the report was partly redacted, Global News has viewed extracts of the document that refer to decisions made “based on a desire to make an operational adjustment that could raise the RCMP intelligence profile, in the eyes of partners, without consideration for the potential impact on employees.”
Davis said the report raised a key question: whether the failure to deal with complaints by NICC employees pointed to a systemic problem in the RCMP, or whether it was unique to Ortis.
“This has a really important implication from my perspective, because if it’s a systematic problem in the RCMP, that’s certainly an organizational issue,” said Davis, president of Insight Threat Intelligence.
“But if Cameron Ortis was being protected individually because of special relationships he may have had with senior executives, that to me is even more serious than systematic issues because it probably would have enabled him to engage in some of the alleged criminal activities for a much longer period of time, without any suspicion being levied against him.”
His arrest has likely made it more difficult for NICC staff to do their jobs, she said.
“These kinds of investigations are extremely disruptive, both from an internal morale perspective … and then of course there’s the international disruption where allies may be more reluctant to share information and intelligence with the RCMP.”