A senior civilian employee at RCMP’s headquarters in Ottawa — described as a fitness buff with a “brilliant” mind and extensive knowledge of cyber-security issues, particularly in Southeast Asia — has been charged by his own force with violating national security by allegedly leaking government secrets.
Charges of this nature are extremely rare in Canada and experts in law enforcement described the developments as surprising and “extremely alarming.”
Cameron Ortis, 47, is accused of multiple violations under the Security of Information Act and the Criminal Code, including sharing “intentionally or without authority” special operational information; possessing a device or software for the purpose of concealing information or surreptitiously sharing or obtaining information; and breach of trust.
“The charges stem from activities alleged to have occurred during his tenure as an RCMP employee” the force said in a statement.
During a brief court appearance in Ottawa Friday, Ortis said little apart from his name and that he understood the charges against him. He faces a total of seven charges, including five federal secrecy charges, for alleged offences dating back to 2015.
I’m quite surprised at the possibility he might be in big trouble
“The allegations are he obtained, stored and processed sensitive information, the Crown believes, with the intent to communicate that information to people he shouldn’t be communicating to,” Federal Crown prosecutor John MacFarlane said outside court.
He remains in custody pending a bail hearing.
Late Friday, Global News reported that the United States had tipped off Canadian authorities, sparking the investigation. Ortis’ arrest, Global reported, was part of a larger international security roundup and other arrests outside of Canada were expected.
“I can assure you the authorities are taking this extremely seriously but you might understand I have no comment to make,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters, soon after the charges against Ortis were made public.
A source confirmed to the National Post that Ortis had risen within the civilian ranks of the force and was appointed by former Commissioner Bob Paulson to the rank of director-general and oversaw an intelligence unit. While it is unusual for a civilian to reach such a high rank within intelligence, it is not unprecedented.
It is a highly specialized field and Ortis would have worked in the company of a group of civilian analysts who, the source said, are “really competent, sharp people.”
He certainly had access to everything
Another senior source said Ortis started off in the national security program working in the area of “critical infrastructure.” He was then promoted to “alternative analysis,” which the senior source described as the force’s attempt to impose structure into analysis and doing such things as projecting into the future.
Ortis played a role in recruiting other civilians with PhDs to reshape the force’s federal policing arm, the senior source said.
Known by his colleagues as “Cam,” Ortis was a fitness fanatic who ran every day at noon — a “zero body fat” kind of guy, the senior source said. He was “very disciplined” and “brilliant at piecing” information together.
“He certainly had access to everything from soup to nuts.”
According to Ortis’s limited online presence, he lists his occupation on LinkedIn as “Advisor” to the federal government and obtained a PhD in international relations and political science at UBC in 2006. It also says he speaks Mandarin.
His PhD dissertation posted online examined cybersecurity and the threat posed by transnational organized crime to firms and state organizations in East Asia.
An acquaintance of Ortis in B.C., who asked not to be identified, said he received a visit Thursday night from RCMP investigators looking to learn more about Ortis. The acquaintance, who said he hasn’t talked to Ortis in about a decade, said RCMP told him Ortis had been arrested on charges of breach of trust and bribery.
Nothing in my experience with Cameron would lead me to suspect his alleged involvement
“I quite liked him. He was a nice guy. I’m quite surprised at the possibility he might be in big trouble,” the acquaintance told the Post.
The acquaintance said he had helped Ortis with his PhD dissertation, specifically in the analysis of data he had collected from Internet Service Providers about the origins of cyber intrusions around the world.
He described Ortis as well-rounded, thoughtful and reserved.
The acquaintance said he recalled that Ortis had ties to the Fraser Valley region, east of Vancouver.
A resident who shares the same last name as Ortis answered the phone Friday and said his family was still digesting the news, taking things “one step at a time” and choosing to “stay under the radar.”
UBC Political Science professor Brian Job, who supervised Ortis’s PhD studies and post-doctoral fellowship, said he occasionally met Ortis for coffee or dinner. Ortis never provided details of his work at the RCMP, he said.
“Nothing in my experience with Cameron would lead me to suspect his alleged involvement in the activities for which he is charged. Indeed, the exact opposite is true. I am deeply shocked by the news,” Job wrote in an email.
Cameron Ortis’s academic publications indicate an interest in cyber issues in Asia.
His PhD thesis “seeks to examine the relationship between rapid Internet diffusion and the emergence of new threats and the digitization of traditional threats,” according to its description on the UBC website. “The insecurities of the digital world call into question the efficacy and legitimacy of traditional state-based security when applied to new Internet-based threats.”
Ortis also collaborated with Paul Evans, the director emeritus of the Institute of Asian Research at UBC, on a paper entitled The Internet and Asia-Pacific security: Old conflicts and new behaviour, published in 2003.
“It provides examples from the patterns of Internet conflict involving a quadral relationship among four nodes, uncivil society, civil society, government and business as well as the pattern of conflict within each of the nodes,” says the abstract to the paper.
The Security of Information Act was passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and was first tested in 2012 when RCMP naval intelligence officer Jeffrey Delisle was charged under the act for selling secrets to Russia. During a period of five years, Delisle received 23 payments totalling more than $70,000, the judge found. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was released on parole in 2018.
In the late 1970s, the McDonald Commission began investigating illegal activities within the RCMP and concluded that Canada needed a civilian security organization, leading to the formation of CSIS. By the 1980s, information leaks were most often motivated by money, says Greg Kealey, a professor emeritus of history of the University of New Brunswick.
“The most celebrated recent cases in the United States were for financial reasons, and ditto in the Delisle case, to the extent that we understand what his motivations were,” says Kealey.
Stephanie Carvin, a professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and a national security expert, called the charges against Ortis “extremely alarming.”
A few questions are outstanding, she said: Did the person succeed in doing what he’s alleged to have set out to do, namely, to communicate information with someone with whom he shouldn’t be communicating? And to whom was the information allegedly sent?
“This person would have had access to a lot of information,” Carvin said. “Basically, national security division at RCMP deals with terrorism, espionage and clandestine foreign influence activity.”
Carvin added: “If this person succeeded there is the potential for this to be worse than the Delisle case in 2010.”
She cautioned that while China and Russia are the foreign powers that come to mind, “we can’t automatically assume, but those would be the two likeliest suspects.”
Michael Nesbitt, a national security law expert at the University of Calgary, called the charges “unprecedented.”
“I can’t think of another example of an RCMP officer being charged under these circumstances with this sort of stuff,” Nesbitt said. “So this is, by the very nature of how rare this is, it’s a big deal.”
Canada is part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network with United States, Britain, New Zealand and Australia.
Canadian officials told a sentencing hearing in 2013 that allies had threatened to withhold intelligence from Canada unless it tightened security procedures.
In a statement, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said: “Canadians can continue to have confidence in their security and intelligence agencies to protect our safety and rights.”
With files from Meagan Campbell, Postmedia staff and Reuters