Ortis was ‘on the cusp’ of passing state secrets to foreign entity at time of arrest, Crown alleged

Cameron Ortis, convicted by a jury Wednesday of violating Canada’s secrets act, was arrested when he was “on the cusp” of passing state secrets to a foreign entity, a Crown prosecutor alleged during the former RCMP official’s bail hearing in 2019.

When RCMP officers raided Cameron Ortis’s condo in late August 2019, they were hunting for clues related to leaks of internal police documents to criminal groups.

Their investigation took a quick turn into the murky world of international espionage when they analyzed electronic equipment and documents seized at the residence of the national police force’s top intelligence analyst.

On several to-do lists police found in his condo, Ortis noted mundane activities like donating blood, cleaning his apartment, working out and filing dental insurance claims — in addition to tasks related to what he called “the project.” Prosecutors said this was the name given to his plan to leak state secrets.

On his computer equipment, RCMP agents discovered 488 highly classified documents.

According to information disclosed in court in the fall of 2019 — which can now be reported publicly for the first time — almost all of these documents were printed by Ortis at his RCMP offices between September 2018 and August 2019.

Ortis, a civilian with a doctorate in international relations, was serving at the time as the director of the RCMP’s national intelligence co-ordination centre in Ottawa. He had access to Canada’s Top Secret Network (CTSN), a computer network used by the federal government to share classified information. CTSN held intelligence from Canada’s allies in the Five Eyes, an intelligence-sharing network that includes the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

During his bail hearings in October 2019, federal prosecutor Judy Kliewer alleged Ortis was in the final stages of a plan to pass state secrets to a “foreign entity.”

Ortis was arrested by his RCMP colleagues on September 12, 2019 before he acted on that plan, said the Crown. During the bail hearing, Kliewer argued that if Ortis had carried out his plan, the consequences would have been catastrophic for the security of Canada, its allies and intelligence agents in the field.

“It was like he was holding a loaded gun and about to pull the trigger,” she said.

On Wednesday, a jury found Ortis guilty of all charges against him.

Testifying in his own defence, Ortis claimed he was actually working on a secret mission from a foreign agency. Ortis said the plan was to lure criminals to an encrypted email service to allow authorities to collect intelligence about them.

Some charges were dropped in 2022

Ortis said he sent the information to police targets in order to prove his “bona fides.”

Now that his trial is over, CBC is allowed to publish previously unreported allegations made against Ortis during his bail hearing four years ago. Before the verdict, those allegations were covered by a publication ban.

This new series of allegations, related to a potential case of international espionage, were not raised in Ortis’s trial and were never proved in court.

In fact, four charges against Ortis related to alleged infractions under section 16 of the Security of Information Act, which deals with communications with foreign entities or terrorist organizations, were dropped by the court in 2022.

In that ruling, which was also under a publication ban until Wednesday, the court concluded that restrictions on the use of classified information at the trial would prevent Ortis from presenting a full defence.

According to that ruling, Ortis was preparing to argue that he accumulated classified information to make a presentation to senior RCMP members “concerning how to best respond to the growing threat from a specific foreign entity.”

WATCH: Cameron Ortis and the RCMP spy scandal 

The Smartest Guy in the Room: Cameron Ortis and the RCMP Secrets Scandal

Featured VideoCameron Ortis was once the RCMP’s top intelligence officer. But today he is in custody, facing charges of revealing secrets to unauthorized people and plotting to leak even more. The Fifth Estate tells the inside story of how his alleged crimes came to light, a remarkable story that involves a Mexican drug cartel, Australian biker gangs and a world of gambling, money laundering and encrypted phones. It’s a story that features a successful Vancouver company that made its fortune selling phones to the criminal underworld, and an American who styles himself as Robin Hood, but who eventually went to the FBI with a story that ultimately revealed secrets being offered for sale at the highest levels of the RCMP.

What most concerned investigators was that one of his to-do lists mentioned the need to “start to plan first contact.” When the RCMP raided his residence, Ortis’s current to-do list referred to setting up an initial meeting at a restaurant on the third Thursday in September.

Adding to their worry, the Crown said, was the fact that Ortis had collected business cards from “foreign officials.”

Although those charges were dropped, the allegations shed new light on the case against the man who was a rising star in the RCMP until his colleagues began to suspect he had betrayed them.

After growing up in British Columbia, Ortis joined the RCMP in 2006. In 2015, he used an alias to make an unusual offer to a British Columbia businessman named Vincent Ramos.

Ramos headed a company, Phantom Secure, that sold encrypted phones to members of organized crime and was already in the sights of police forces in several countries.

“You do not know me. I have information that I am confident you will find very valuable,” Ortis wrote in an email under a pseudonym, adding his pitch was a simple “business proposition.”

A bald man sitting in a police cruiser with the rear passenger door open.
Vincent Ramos is arrested by Bellingham Police on March 7, 2018. (Bellingham Police Department)

In his emails to Ramos, Ortis presented himself as a hacker and said he had information that Ramos could find useful.

“It is not risk free, of course, but the risk to reward ratio will prove to be more than acceptable,” he said.

Ortis asked for $20,000 in exchange for confidential information that was in the hands of the RCMP.

He also proactively offered Ramos information that the Crown said could have endangered the life of an undercover RCMP officer who had attempted to infiltrate Phantom Secure. Ortis rejected that claim during his testimony, saying he never released the undercover agent’s name.

‘This is not a trick’

According to the Crown, Ortis also offered information from police files to members of a group involved in money laundering — a CD-ROM containing a sample of the material at his disposal.

“This is not a trick and I do not work for a law enforcement or intelligence agency, demonstrated, I think, by the attached documents. I do, however, have the ability to access a wide variety of information,” he said in his communications with this group.

The jury has heard there is no evidence Ortis ever received money in exchange for confidential information.

The RCMP became aware of the illicit contacts with Ramos in 2018, when he was arrested in the United States and his electronic devices were seized and analyzed by police.

Seeing one of their documents in Ramos’s possession, RCMP investigators concluded there was a mole in their organization.

RCMP analysts quickly determined that Ortis was one of the people who had access to the sensitive information found in Ramos’s computer.

The ensuing investigation led them to surreptitiously enter Ortis’s residence on August 26, 2019. There they started to copy and analyze the information on his electronic equipment.

Ortis tried to make documents untraceable, Crown said

The RCMP seized five laptops, three cellphones, five portable hard drives, 10 memory sticks and a few pre-paid SIM cards from Ortis’s condo in Ottawa.

Although some of his computer tools were encrypted, at least one laptop was accessible without a password, which allowed RCMP experts to move quickly.

Investigators found 488 classified documents in a laptop under a folder called “Batman,” prosecutors said.

Based on the dates on the documents, investigators concluded they had been printed mostly on weekends and holidays, when fewer colleagues would have been in the office to see Ortis at work.

Prosecutors said Ortis removed the headers and footers from certain documents before transforming them into PDFs, to make them untraceable.

Two crown prosecutors speak to reporters outside of a courthouse.
Crown prosecutor Judy Kliewer, right, speaks to reporters alongside fellow prosecutor John MacFarlane outside of the Ottawa Courthouse after Cameron Jay Ortis, a former RCMP intelligence official charged with breaching Canada’s secrets law, was found guilty on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

“The only inference is that these documents were created for the purpose of sharing them, communicating secret information to people who would be interested in them,” Kliewer alleged during the bail hearing.

“Given the nature of the documents … these are no longer organized-crime directed documents. These are all documents that related to national security and would only be of interest to a foreign entity.”

One of the “processed” documents was created in the middle of the night between September 8 and 9 and placed in a folder called “first meeting,” said Kliewer.

Organized and meticulous

She added the file was classified “gamma,” meaning it was one of the most closely-held secrets in Canada’s hands.

During their search, police discovered intriguing do-to lists that paint a picture of Ortis as organized and meticulous.

One list related to his “project” laid out a series of tasks, such as printing and scanning documents, installing software or making backup copies of files.

One of his to-do lists mentioned the need to “start to plan first contact.” When the RCMP raided his residence, the current to-do list referred to setting up an initial meeting at a restaurant on the third Thursday in September.

Kliewer said Ortis was arrested three days after the second RCMP raid, when he was at a “critical stage” of his project and “on the cusp” of a great betrayal. No information was provided at the bail hearing regarding the identity of the country that could have been approached by Ortis.

“He is supposed to be working with these documents for intelligence and to assist law enforcement to protect Canadians against criminal activity and also to ensure national security,” said Kliewer. “But he is going to work to cull these documents to share them with people adverse [to] these interests.”

Despite the Crown’s argument that Ortis could flee the country or find a way to pass on his secrets, he was released on bail in October 2019.

That decision was overturned on appeal a few days later, and Ortis was detained for more than three years, until the end of 2022.

An older woman in dark glasses walks down a street.
Loretta Ortis, mother of Cameron Ortis, heads towards his lawyers’ office after leaving the courthouse in Ottawa, where her sone was granted bail on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

In recent months, he has lived with numerous restrictions on his freedom, including a ban on access to any electronic devices except to prepare for his trial.

During his bail hearing in 2019, he acknowledged he was not particularly close to his parents, who only learned after his arrest that he had an estranged 17-year-old daughter for whom he was providing parental support.

The bail hearing also heard Ortis was also responsible for the monthly payments on a $100,000 mortgage his parents took out on their condominium to cover his student loans.

Ortis will be sentenced in January. The Crown said Wednesday it will seek at least a 20-year sentence.

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