Cameron Ortis, the former RCMP intelligence officer accused of leaking top-secret information, finally heads to trial today in one of the most sensitive court cases in Canadian history.
As the former director general of the RCMP’s national intelligence co-ordination center in Ottawa, Ortis had access to national and multinational investigations and coveted intelligence.
He faces six charges, including four counts of violating the Information Security Act.
The 51-year-old is charged with three counts of sharing special operational information “intentionally and without authority” and one count of attempting to share special operational information. He also faces two Criminal Code charges: breach of trust and unauthorized use of a computer.
Details of the charges against Ortis, including the names of the parties the Crown says were the recipients of his alleged leaks, are likely to become known during the trial. For now, court documents only identify those parties by their initials: VR, SH, MA and FM.
“This is unprecedented,” said Jess Davis, a former analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. “Ortis is someone who held a very high position in a very sensitive part of the RCMP.
“It has shaken the core of the public service and the security and intelligence community because this is someone that a lot of people had contact with and with whom a lot of people would have had the opportunity to work.”
Davis, now president of Insight Threat Intelligence, said she will be watching to see what evidence the Crown presents about possible motive, whether the RCMP employed proper checks and balances to protect its intelligence and how the defense presents its case.
Ortis’ attorney, Mark Ertel, said his client expects to testify in the coming weeks.
“We believe he has a compelling story and will not be found guilty of any charges,” Ertel said.
“He is accused of doing things without authority and we believe we will be able to establish that he had authority to do everything he did.”
Information Security Act Charges Rare
This will be the first time a court has reviewed charges under the Information Security Act.
“It’s pretty groundbreaking,” said Leah West, who practices national security law and teaches at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
“Not only is it a test case, but many lessons could be learned about how to deal with intelligence-evidence cases in other contexts, where we want to prosecute other national security cases.”
There has only been one conviction under the Information Security Act in the law’s 21-year history. A Canadian naval officer pleaded guilty in 2012 to selling secrets to Russia during a preliminary hearing.
“Charges are very rare. Convictions are rare. Trials are the rarest,” West said.
It has taken more than four years for Ortis’ case to come to trial.
He was arrested in September 2019 and held behind bars for more than three years. He was released on bail in December under strict conditions.
Ortis’ trial was halted when his original lawyer, Ian Carter, was appointed judge of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Ottawa last year. Her new attorneys, Ertel and Jon Doody, needed time to catch up.
Judge has a balancing act: national security lawyer
It was further delayed because the Federal Court had to determine what confidential information could be disclosed under the Canada Evidence Act.
Davis said the public will likely never see the full picture, given national security concerns.
“There are many things Canadians will never know,” he said.
“But we will still have a good view of the internal processes of the RCMP, a good idea of the investigation and, at the end of the day, we will get a verdict.”
West said Judge Robert Maranger will have to constantly balance the need to protect national security information with the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
“The judge has to balance the need to continue to protect that information that was allegedly disclosed without authorization… with the principle of open hearing and our right as the public to understand, and the right of the accused to know all the information that has been used . against [them],” she said.
Ortis’ trial is scheduled to last eight weeks.
It begins Tuesday with jury selection.