Is he a spy? Is he a criminal? Or was he just an academic who turned out to be not quite the wunderkind that the upper management of the RCMP purported him to be.
Who is this 47 year old Cameron Ortis? Someone out of a le Carre novel? A dysfunctional nerd? Someone living quietly in the shadows, but craving adrenalin? A crass profiteer? It is likely that the eventual story will be some combination of all of the above.
As John Le Carre said in his most famous of novels Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy “the more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal”.
But whoever he is, or was, or wanted to be, things didn’t turn out for him as well as he expected considering his somewhat blessed rise in the RCMP.
Mr. Ortis joined the RCMP, in 2007, coming in from the academic cold; after having obtained a PhD in International Relations from the University of British Columbia. It may prove relevant to his eventual court case to note that Mr. Ortis spoke Mandarin and for his Phd had travelled extensively through China. As part of that thesis he interviewed many individuals in the underground world of hacking in China.
By 2016, nine years into his job, he had convinced many of his ability to lead, and was promoted to being the Director General of the National Intelligence Coordination Centre.
This is also the unit responsible for the RCMP efforts against cybercrime. As originally structured, the Cyber Crime Fusion Centre stood on its own but in 2014 was placed under the aegis of the National Intelligence Coordination Centre. This higher profile for the Centre resulted in greater funding and resourcing with the inclusion of that cybercrime responsibility. Mr.Ortis with his academic background in cybercrime was therefore, it would have been argued, a natural fit.
It was in November 2011 that Bob Paulson became the Commissioner of the RCMP.
Clearly the appointment and some level of friendship Cameron Ortis enjoyed with the new Commissioner aided in this bureaucratic re-structuring as well as his rise in status. Global News quotes four high level sources who all say that Paulson was “instrumental” in Ortis’s rapid rise in the RCMP. It was in 2016 that Ortis was promoted to the Director of the Centre by Paulson and the Executive Committee of the RCMP. He also became the first-ever civilian director-general.
Since the arrest of Mr. Ortis now ex-Commissioner Paulson is backing away from his relationship from Ortis; saying only that “they had a friendly relationship” and then playing with semantics said “I never personally promoted him”…but he was “ always impressed with him”.
The Globe and Mail reported that Paulson even attempted to convert Mr. Ortis to a cop, rather than remain a civilian member, but ran into opposition from the uniform ranks.
As the Director General Mr. Ortis would have been cleared Top Secret and he would have enjoyed access to human sources and learned covert methods of information collection; not just by Canada but by other allied agencies. He would also have had access to the Canadian top secret network often referred to as “Mandrake”. This network links twenty different Federal Departments and distills the most important and secretive information flowing between them.
It all came to an end for Mr. Ortis in 2019 when the coy and secretive Clark Kent look a like, was officially charged with eight counts under the Security of Information Act as well as the Criminal Code for Breach of Trust and Unauthorized use of a Computer. These multiple charges concerned passing on secrets to a foreign entity in 2015 and that he was gathering information in 2018 to do the same– that he had taken “steps to access, for concealing, or surreptitiously obtaining information”.
Commissioner Lucki later described these events as “unsettling” and that she was “shaken”, but maintained that all was well in terms of the RCMP relationship to the other intelligence partners. That is probably untrue.
Canada is a member of the “Five Eyes” which is an oblique reference to the other countries to which Canada shares or receives information. The United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand are part of the group, but it should be pointed out that Canada is usually a “net consumer” of intelligence information. A bureaucratic way of saying that they are given far more information than they provide.
There is absolutely no way that the Americans and the others would have been pleased nor happy about going into damage control. It would have by necessity caused a long audit of all operations, some with possible major ramifications. The ripple effect of this traitorous behaviour can often be far reaching in the world of the cloak and dagger. It could have endangered lives and significant covert operations around the world. Foreign intelligence cases may have had to have been pulled after being exposed by his subterfuge.
As a former member of the Security Service, it can be said with little hesitation by this writer, that it was always pretty well accepted that the United States had very little faith in Canada and would often vet any information given to Canada, fearful of its leaky bureaucracy. This episode is not going to help this decades long fear that others have had with the level of security in the RCMP. It would be completely natural for all the partners to fall back and reassess all information sharing.
To better understand how Ortis rose through the ranks, one needs to look at the history of this unit .
Ottawa and the focus on Federal policing by the RCMP, was for the most part prompted by the single event of 9/11.
The shock and exposure that this tragic event exposed was two fold; that North America could be a target, and secondly, that the RCMP in Ottawa was severely lacking in the Federal intelligence sphere. It was discomforting to know that the hijackers came through Canada for a reason.
The Mounties had already had the Federal Security Service taken away from them in 1984 (and transformed into CSIS) and they were scrambling to both appear and be relevant to their political bosses. That effort continues to this day, as the Mounties continue to struggle with the Federal versus Provincial divide. The RCMP is currently a schizophrenic organization, seemingly underpowered and overwhelmed in both mandated spheres. Spread thin many argue with an overwhelming mandate for any singular agency.
But after 9/11, in all too typical knee jerk fashion, the RCMP began to exponentially expand its Federal presence; re-assigning both manpower and monies in an attempt to grow an FBI style policing model around intelligence gathering and dissemination. This quick expansion was often administratively cumbersome, often amateurish, and often shotgun-like in its approach.
Some would argue that the Maher Arar episode in 2006 was evidence of this unprofessionalism and due in part to this unbridled expansion. Suffice to say there are and were some serious growing pains that continue to this day.
As part of this expansion and the need to demonstrate its prowess the Mounties greatly expanded its analytical role and like CSIS sought out academia. It was hoped that by plumbing the ivory tower this would at the very least add a level of educational sophistication, often difficult to find in the homegrown RCMP members. Like CSIS, the pendulum swung too far.
Management fell in love with the academics, who in turn were pushing away the investigational component and thus downplaying investigational experience. All effort was in exchange for this “enlightened” approach. Mr. Ortis climb to the top was part of this trend.
What is equally interesting is how this genius level Phd, head of an intelligence agency within the National Police Force; with a speciality in cybercrime; how you may ask did he got caught.
To answer this question there is a great deal of evidence pointing to one individual. Mr. Vincent Ramos.
Mr. Ramos headed a company called Phantom Secure, or Phantom Security Group. It turns out that Mr. Ramos had come under scrutiny by the Americans as he was pedalling “secure” phones to criminals. These phones allowed those intent on criminality to “go dark” –technically invisible to the authorities. This consisted of removing, using Blackberry phones, the GPS and tracking hardware and install encrypted messaging capabilities. He did this by routing the encrypted data through servers in Hong Kong and Panama while also using hidden usernames.
To obtain one of these $4,000.00 per year phones, someone, another client, had to vouch for you. By 2018 Ramos and his company had about 10,000 subscribers. Proceeds were kept in cryptocurrencies.
The attention Mr. Ramos garnered led to a massive investigation, made up of the FBI, the Australian Federal Police and the RCMP —the company business address was in Pickering Ontario. By the end of the American led investigation, over 25 search warrants were executed, and the RCMP had targeted Ramos using an undercover operation in Las Vegas.
The arrest of Ramos in May of 2019, in San Diego, by the U.S FBI, then led quite incidentally to the uncovering of an as yet unidentified individual who was trying to pedal intelligence information to Ramos and his well-connected criminal group.
The answer to how he got caught? Apparently, our Canadian cyber security expert and head of intelligence had sent an email to the Ramos group “offering valuable information”.
Thus was borne “Project Ace”. (The A in the name indicates that it was run out of A Division in Ottawa) . This investigation would therefore have been headed by the SIU in Ottawa, the same investigational group that gave us the Mike Duffy case and the Mark Norman case. One can only hope this turns out a little better.
Mr. Ramos has now been sentenced in the United States, to nine years and forfeited $80 million.
It should be mentioned that there were other people involved with Ramos; Kim Augustus Rodd (an Australian Thai citizen), Younes Nasri, Michael Gaboa and Christopher Poquiz. All of whom remain at large.
After the initial headlines and the “shock” expressed by the Commissioner there have now been a couple of further developments.
Apparently Mr. Ortis had some administrative problems while heading the Intelligence unit. Three former “investigational analysts” (Francisco Chaves, Michael Vladars, and Danya Young) have launched a civil suit against Ortis and the RCMP for “strange and controlling behaviour” under his direction.
They claim Ortis “misappropriated their work and used it for personal gain”, and further claim that Ortis and therefore complicit senior managers of the RCMP had mishandled the situation to the point that over 1/2 of the analysts had left the organization. In all they are blaming a “failure of leadership”.
The obvious implication of this civil suit is that Mr. Ortis may have come under some level of managerial investigation prior to his attempts at being a spy. This possibility seems a little weak in terms of whether a human resources complaint would have in the end exposed Mr. Ortis.
Interestingly, neither Paulson or Lucki are named in the suit, although Paulson has already had to answer media questions as to whether he was protecting his friend from the employee complaints of mismanagement.
The case against Mr Ortis is now before the Ontario Superior Court and by no means is a fait accompli that he will be found guilty of all these charges. There is a possibility that the demands of disclosure to a proper defence, will include presumably asking for names of witnesses and this could reveal some state secrets. Rather than expose these secrets the government could be forced to withdraw certain charges.
The initial disclosure package contained 14,000 pages, a new normal in terms of the courts. This too could delay the process. It has also been learned that Mr.Ortis apparently kept a number of encrypted computers at home.
There has long been a long standing saying that only the dumb ones get caught. That can be argued, but if a long history of investigations has taught this writer anything it is that even the good ones make mistakes. That being said, this academic was not that smart in terms of wanting to stray into the dark world. But he was clearly good at impressing those that needed to be impressed.
Nor does this imply that Mr. Paulson is culpable.
It has long been known that Mr. Paulson was loyal and royally rewarded his faithful followers. (One only needs to check all the promotions his friends received just prior to his departure). Equally, Mr. Paulson in demeanour and in action seemed to want to portray and hangout with the learned academic clan. With his glasses perched at the end of his nose, he seemed intent on promoting the air and idea of being an intellectual constrained in the confines of the RCMP. It is extremely likely that he would have been enthralled with Mr. Ortis.
It’s now been a year since Ortis’ arrest. In his last court appearance on September 4th., Crown and defence were still struggling with the large disclosure packages and arguments over what will be allowed to be introduced into court, and what will be determined to be too sensitive for the public eyes.
It is expected that the case will go well into next year.
Best bet would be that the Mounties are looking for a guilty plea. Guilty pleas are apt political camouflage and the intelligence partners will be demanding that nothing be revealed. It also seems likely that the upper management of the RCMP would like to avoid putting on display how well they were duped.
Will we ever learn the truth? More likely is that the small beam of truth when and if it finally shines through will have passed through a series of intelligence agency prisms.
Such is the world when one lives in the shadows.
Photo courtesy of Phillip Sidek via Flickr Commons – Some rights Reserved
Correction: This was recently pointed out, quite rightly, by an astute reader:
“I enjoy your blog posts, and in general consider myself a kindred spirit. I must point out an error in your latest, however–the canard, rolled out again and again by U.S. conspiracy theorists, that “It was discomforting to know that the [9/11] hijackers came through Canada for a reason. ”
This is incorrect. True, the LAX bomber was intercepted coming through from BC. But none of the 9/11 hijackers had circumvented US immigration controls by coming through Canada. The closest mention one can find of a Canadian connection to this atrocity is in the following article:https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/23/magazine/9-11-saudi-arabia-fbi.html
If the 9/11 commission had identified such a Canadian loophole, it would have said so.
Canada doesn’t have a perfect record in the intelligence and security field (with the Air India bombing being the most egregious failure on our part to date) but we’ve made some progress. With, as you point out, some backsliding.
My only suggested correction to an otherwise sharp and perceptive blog post.”