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Accused RCMP leaker tells of clandestine operation, moles inside law enforcement

OTTAWA — A former RCMP official accused of leaking secrets says he was actually conducting a clandestine intelligence operation — one that had to be kept ultra-quiet due to moles within Canadian law enforcement.
A former RCMP intelligence official accused of leaking secrets has told a jury he didn't commit a crime or betray the national police force. Cameron Jay Ortis arrives to the Ottawa Courthouse in Ottawa on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — A former RCMP official accused of leaking secrets says he was actually conducting a clandestine intelligence operation — one that had to be kept ultra-quiet due to moles within Canadian law enforcement.

Cameron Jay Ortis testified in Ontario Superior Court that he was trying to deceive investigative targets into using a new, supposedly secure email service that would allow intelligence officials access to their private communications.

Reporters and the general public were excluded from the courtroom for Ortis's testimony last week, but transcripts have now been released. 

The Crown says Ortis anonymously sent classified material in 2015 to people who were of investigative interest to the RCMP. 

Ortis, 51, has pleaded not guilty to violating the Security of Information Act by revealing secrets to three individuals and trying to do so in a fourth instance, as well as breach of trust and a computer-related offence. 

The Crown argues Ortis lacked authority to disclose classified material and that he was not doing so as part of some sort of undercover operation.

But Ortis has told the jury he didn't commit a crime or lose sight of his mission.

On the contrary, he says, he was acting to protect Canadians.

Ortis was director the RCMP's Operations Research group, which compiled and developed classified information on terror cells, transnational criminal networks, cybercrime actors and commercial espionage.

He said that in September 2014 he was contacted by a counterpart at a foreign agency who advised him of a particularly serious threat. 

"It was very compelling, and it demonstrated clearly a direct and grave threat," Ortis said under questioning from his lawyer, Mark Ertel.

"I was given a strict caveat not to share the information with anyone."

Ortis said the foreign ally, who he is not at liberty to name, spoke of a plan to encourage criminal targets to begin using an online encryption service called Tutanota — a "storefront" operation created by intelligence agents to snoop on adversaries.

Telling no one, Ortis decided to act, drafting a list of four possible recipients as part of Operation Nudge — as in nudging them to adopt the new email service.

That's when Ortis says he began enticing investigative targets with promises of secret information — including tantalizing portions of documents — with the actual aim of getting them to communicate with him via Tutanota.

There was another intriguing twist.

"I had sensitive information from multiple sources that each of the subjects had compromised or penetrated Canadian law enforcement agencies," Ortis said.

"I think ... they had moles."

Ortis told the jury that was one reason he did not brief his superiors about Operation Nudge — what he called "my significant concern about the insider threat information that I was briefed on."

"I was concerned that it might allow somebody to thwart my efforts."

Ortis said he also felt bound by the strict caveats placed on the information by his counterpart.

The jury has heard that the RCMP has extensive protocols for conducting undercover operations.

Ortis said he decided the covert operations policy did not apply to Nudge because, unlike a traditional undercover assignment, there was no intention of collecting criminal evidence or intelligence.

On Ortis's first day in the witness box, Ertel asked him if he had betrayed the RCMP.

"Absolutely not," Ortis replied. 

The defence lawyer also asked Ortis if he regretted his actions. 

"Well, I don't make decisions based on my career or career prospects, but I couldn't have envisioned or imagined that all of this would transpire," Ortis said. 

"So, it's — of course, in some sense I regret everything that's happened over the last four years to everyone, but what I did was not wrong." 

Ortis was taken into custody in September 2019 and several electronic devices were seized from his Ottawa apartment. 

He told the court his arrest was "devastating" for his career and that his public reputation has been completely destroyed. 

Ortis said his family, as well as friends from the "old days" in British Columbia where he lived and studied, have stood by him, "but friends and colleagues in Ottawa and professional contacts have not."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2023.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press