What did he know? Canadas national secrets case


Cameron Ortis, shown in a court sketch from his court hearing in Canada on 13 SeptemberImage copyright

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Cameron Ortis, shown in a court sketch from his court hearing in Canada on 13 September

The arrest of a senior Canadian intelligence official on allegations of stealing classified materials has shaken the international intelligence community.

Cameron Ortis, a civilian member of Canada’s national police force, had access to intelligence from Canada’s global allies and has been charged with a number of offences under the country’s national security laws.

With Mr Ortis due to appear in court on Friday, here’s what we know about the case.

Who is he?

Cameron Ortis, 47, began working with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 2007 as a civilian member of the force, and in that time held positions in national security criminal investigations and in operations research.

At the time of his arrest, he was the director general of the law enforcement agency’s National Intelligence Coordination Centre, and held a high-level security clearance.

Wesley Wark, a leading expert on Canadian national security, describes the unit within RCMP where Mr Ortis worked as “a fusion centre and a clearing house” for both internal intelligence and for sensitive information received from other Canadian and foreign intelligence agencies and allies.

Mr Ortis has expertise in cyber security and East Asia, and studied political science and international relations at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in western Canada.

Professor Brian Job, who served as Mr Ortis’ supervisor for his PhD studies and a postdoctoral fellowship, and later saw him on occasion socially, said in a statement that “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.”

How was he caught?

The case dates back to 2018, when the RCMP was assisting the FBI on a separate investigation, during which investigators came across documents that suggested there might be some internal corruption – “a mole”.

That sparked a separate investigation to discover the source of the leak and to the arrest of Mr Ortis.

As soon as it learned there was cause for concern, the force took immediate steps to safeguard intelligence, the RCMP said.

Few details of the joint inquiry have been made public but media reports have linked it into an investigation into the Vancouver-based company Phantom Secure, whose CEO has pleaded guilty to facilitating international narcotics traffic by supplying drug cartels with encrypted communications devices.

It also remains unclear what the sensitive information he accessed was – The RCMP has a wide range of national security-related responsibilities, including investigations into terrorist and criminal activity.

A high-profile critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, US financier Bill Browder, told Reuters Mr Ortis was looking into allegations that Russian tax fraudsters had laundered millions of dollars through Canada.

What has he been charged with?

Mr Ortis is accused of breaching the Security of Information Act and the Criminal Code.

The five charges filed against him include the “unauthorised communication of special operational information”, possessing a device or software “useful for concealing the content of information or for surreptitiously communicating, obtaining or retaining information”, and breach of trust by a public officer.

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Cameron Ortis was a civilian employee with the RCMP

The offence took place between 2015 and 2019 during his tenure as an RCMP employee.

None of the allegations against Mr Ortis have been tested in court. If convicted, he could face up to 30 years in jail.

“We recognise that these allegations, if proven true, are extremely unsettling,” said RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said.

How damaging could this be?

Canada is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance that also includes the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand.

It is not yet clear whether information, such as operational intelligence, sources and investigative methods, was compromised.

Ms Lucki says for the moment allies continue to share intelligence but conceded there is “always the possibility” they might lose trust.

Mr Wark told the BBC that the damage could be “very serious” but that “no one knows what the link between potential and real damage might be at this stage”.

It appears that his work dealt with elements of both cyber security and organised crime, said Mr Wark, but he noted that being employed in “a kind of intelligence hub” for the RCMP means he could have had access to databases and information beyond his immediate role.

“The reality of his position is he would have had knowledge of a wide range of national security files,” he said. “That’s partly what of course worries Canada and worries Canada’s allies.”

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