Espionage trial of top RCMP agent to test Canada's competence in handling spy cases

Four years after his arrest sent shockwaves through the police, intelligence and international community, Cameron Ortis will face six charges when his trial begins Tuesday

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OTTAWA – When Cameron Jay Ortis, the former RCMP intelligence director general accused of leaking top-secret information, steps into an Ottawa courtroom on Tuesday he won’t be the only one on trial.

It stands to be the first time in this country’s history that a Canadian is tried for alleged breaches of classified information under the current version of the Security of Information Act. To many observers of the intelligence community, it is a test of whether Canada in fact has the ability to prosecute espionage cases.

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At the time of his arrest in 2019, Ortis was a senior civilian member of the national police force who, through his job as director general of the RCMP’s National Intelligence Coordination Centre, had more than just access to sensitive police secrets. He was also privy to intelligence from Canada’s security agencies as well as its allies in the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, namely the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia.

His arrest sent shockwaves through the police, intelligence and international community and raised questions about how well the RCMP was vetting employees with top-secret clearance.

Four years after his arrest, Ortis, 51, will face six charges when his trial begins Tuesday. Four are under the Security of Information Act for allegedly “intentionally and without authority” sharing “special operational information” to four unnamed individuals in 2015. Two others charges are under the Criminal Code, for breach of trust and misusing a computer.

Leah West, a national security law expert and assistant professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, is watching the trial to see whether the current Security Information Act under which Ortis is charged is fit for purpose.

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“We haven’t had a successful trial, even though we’ve tried. And so, this is going to be like, can we do it? Do we have a system in place that can allow us to successfully prosecute people?” West said. “It really is a test to see if our judicial system can handle this.”

How we take intelligence and actually use it as evidence in a prosecution, well, we suck at it

Ortis is not the first Canadian to be charged with leaking classified information under the Security of Information Act, but he is set to be the first to be tried. In some previous cases, however, the Crown’s case fell apart before trial.

“How we take intelligence and actually use it as evidence in a prosecution, well, we suck at it. We have a history of sucking,” she added. “This is really going to put that to test in a really hard case.”

The arrest for alleged leaking of classified information by a Mountie who had some of the most extensive access to Canadian and allied intelligence raised questions about how the RCMP protected its classified information, the quality of the continuous vetting it did of high-ranking employees, and why it did not utilize polygraph tests as part of its security checks the way other national intelligence and law-enforcement agencies in Canada and the U.S. do.

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“By virtue of the positions he held, Mr. Ortis had access to information the Canadian intelligence community possessed. He also had access to intelligence coming from our allies both domestically and internationally,” then RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki said in a statement a few days after Ortis’ arrest.

According to West, Ortis essentially sat at the “apex” of Canada’s criminal national security intelligence apparatus.

“He could dip down into everything, and it wasn’t just Canadian intelligence, it was the intelligence shared with us by our allies. And so, the scope of the harm could have been deeply significant,” she said.

Starting Tuesday, Crown prosecutors John MacFarlane and Judy Kliewer will begin pleading a case in a type of trial that is notoriously complex because of the need to balance the public’s right to know with the protection of sensitive intelligence used as evidence.

“The process by which the court tries to thread that needle doesn’t just matter for spy cases, it matters for all cases that involve national security intelligence,” West said, noting that the issue also often comes up in terrorism cases.

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Paul Cavalluzzo, a seasoned national security lawyer, said it will be important that Ortis’ case be conducted in public as much as possible.

“The courts have said that sunshine brings accountability and truth. Obviously, it is better to have a hearing in public. However, there are situations where security intelligence is involved and our courts have said it’s appropriate to have that evidence heard in camera,” said Cavalluzzo.

“The quid pro quo for that is that a summary is normally released which hopefully will give the public a good idea of what happened in secret.”

Most details about the allegations against Ortis are either under a publication ban until the trial begins or are still unknown.

But previous media reports by the CBC and The Walrus have detailed a Hollywood-esque tale that involved a high-stakes gambler, an American college football player turned drug trafficker, a B.C.-based tech company that sold hyper-encrypted phones to a Mexican cartel and an FBI tip to the RCMP that eventually led to Ortis’ arrest.

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During a press conference in 2019, Lucki said a joint investigation with the FBI on a separate matter brought “certain documents” to light that led the Mounties to suspect “internal corruption” and eventually arrest Ortis.

In 2019, National Post reported that Ortis was considered one of former RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson’s “golden boys” — a select cadre of civilians who were rapidly climbing the force’s ranks thanks to unique skill sets and knowledge. In Ortis’ case, his area of expertise was cybercrime.

Ortis’ trial is expected to last several weeks in Ottawa and will be conducted in front of a jury, to be selected starting Tuesday.

Crown prosecutors will likely be tabling a list of witnesses that will be heard during the trial on Tuesday. Crown attorneys declined to comment for this story.

The scope of the harm could have been deeply significant

Somewhat unusually, Ortis is also expected to testify in his defence. His lawyer, Mark Ertel, told reporters Thursday while at the courthouse that his client looks forward to his day in court.

“We believe he has a compelling story and that he won’t be found guilty of any charges,” Ertel said, as Ortis stood quietly behind him.

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He also gave reporters a glimpse of Ortis’ defence against the charges that he leaked information without authority, saying that he expects to establish that the Mountie “did have authority to do everything he did”.

Ortis was detained for roughly three years after he was arrested before being released on bail under strict conditions in December 2022. His lawyer said Thursday that since then, Ortis has been constantly “followed and surveilled and spied on.”

One of the earlier failed cases pursued by the Crown under the Security of Information Act was that of Qing (Quentin) Huang, a Canadian engineer who was arrested in 2013 after an RCMP undercover operation led police to believe he allegedly tried to pass on confidential information about Canada’s shipbuilding strategy to China.

Eight years later, a Superior Court judge stayed the charges due to “unreasonable” delays, largely blaming prosecutors for extending proceedings in the Federal Court over what information should and shouldn’t be disclosed due to national security concerns.

The first Canadian to be charged under the act was Jeffrey Paul Delisle, a former Canadian Armed Forces sub-lieutenant who was arrested by the RCMP in 2012 for selling secrets to Russia in exchange for just over $110,000.

Delisle pled guilty to the charges under the act rather than face a trial. He was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison in 2013 but was released on full parole in 2019.

National Post

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