Top Canadian Intelligence Official Charged With Leaking Secrets
By Ian Austen, New York Times, Sept. 14, 2019
A top intelligence official with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who had access to a wide array of highly sensitive information gathered by Canada and its allies has been charged with passing along or offering secrets.
The official, Cameron Ortis, the director general of the force’s National Intelligence Coordination Center, faces three charges under a rarely used national secrets law. Arrested on Friday, he also faces criminal charges of breach of trust and unauthorized use of a computer.
“He would have had at least top-secret clearance and he would have had access to a great deal of sensitive information,” said Wesley Wark, a visiting research professor at the University of Ottawa who studies intelligence and national security. “This has the appearance of a long investigation and the longer these investigations go, the more likely it is that it involved allied partners.”
The charges indicate that Mr. Ortis is accused of passing on or offering secrets in 2015, and then gathering information in 2018 and this year with an intent to do the same.
Officials disclosed virtually no details of the case, including the supposed recipient of the secrets. John MacFarlane, a prosecutor, told reporters outside court on Friday that Mr. Ortis intended to “communicate that information with people he shouldn’t be communicating to.”
According to his LinkedIn profile, Mr. Ortis speaks Mandarin and joined the government in 2007. For his doctorate at the University of British Columbia, Mr. Ortis wrote a highly technical dissertation examining governmental control of the internet in Asia and its abuse by criminal organizations there.
Mr. Ortis joined the national police force’s intelligence division at a time of great upheaval, Mr. Wark said. After performing only limited intelligence work for decades, the national force tried to greatly expand its capabilities after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But a high-profile inquiry in 2006 found that the police erroneously concluded that a Canadian computer engineer was an Al Qaeda member and had passed along that false information to the United States. The engineer, Maher Arar, was arrested while changing planes in the United States and deported to Syria, where he was imprisoned for a year and tortured.
The aftermath of that affair included a major shake-up of the Mounties’ intelligence operation, which occurred about the time Mr. Ortis was hired. Mr. Wark said that it was unlikely Mr. Ortis was hired for his cybersecurity expertise because that was not a priority for the force in 2007.
“He may well have been brought into the R.C.M.P. because he was spotted as a bright young man,” Mr. Wark said. He added that it was very unusual for a civilian to hold a senior post like director general within the police force.
The Mounties declined to comment on Mr. Ortis’s status, although they did issue a brief statement in which he was called “an employee.”
In his director general position, Mr. Ortis would have been able to use a special system called the Canadian Top Secret Network, which is sometimes referred to as Mandrake, Mr. Wark said.
The network links more than 20 Canadian departments and agencies involved in intelligence gathering and distills the most important secret information, according to Mr. Wark. That includes intelligence gathered in a joint effort known as “Five Eyes” that involves the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, he added. Details on how the intelligence has been acquired are not usually included in the system.
If Mr. Ortis’s case goes to trial, the government will face a dilemma over how to protect the secrets he is accused of dealing.
Michael Nesbitt, a professor at the University of Calgary law school who specializes in national security, said that while evidence presented at trial may be subject to a publication ban, prosecutors cannot use any material that is not shared with Mr. Ortis’s lawyers. That may be difficult if it involves evidence from a foreign intelligence agency that does not want it exposed under any circumstances.
“At the end of the day, if the court orders disclosure of secret information, we keep it secret by pulling the case,” Mr. Nesbitt said. “Unfortunately, we have seen a few national security cases, particularly civil claims, not make it to court in the past decade or so.”