Monday, July 15, 2024

In his lawyer’s telling, the stakes were high when Cameron Ortis took on a secret mission while he was working at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as the civilian director of an elite intelligence unit.

“He protected Canada from serious and imminent threats,” the lawyer, Mark Ertel, told a jury in Ottawa.

But prosecutors and witnesses at Mr. Ortis’s trial said there was no such mission and that instead he provided sensitive intelligence to people under criminal investigation without authorization or the knowledge of the police force.

“His story was nothing but an attempt to have you believe that his criminal, self-motivated acts were aimed at some lofty and secret purpose,” Judy Kliewer, one of the prosecutors, told the jurors, while acknowledging that Mr. Ortis’s true motive remains a mystery to investigators.

On Wednesday Mr. Ortis was convicted of four counts of providing confidential operational information to four men who were targets of police investigations under a secrecy law, as well as breach of trust and unauthorized use of a computer.

Mr. Ortis will be sentenced in January. Ms. Kliewer said that she would seek a sentence of more than 20 years.

“For someone in Mr. Ortis’s position, nothing less than a very severe sentence would be appropriate,” she told reporters.

It was a remarkable downfall for Mr. Ortis, 51, who even prosecutors agreed was highly respected when he was arrested in 2020 and accused of giving secret information.

He rose from director of operations research, the post he held when prosecutors say he was leaking secrets, to become director general of the national intelligence coordination unit. Both were unusually high level positions for a civilian within the national police force.

The trial was the first time that charges under Canada’s 1985 Security of Information Act — which makes Mr. Ortis “permanently bound to secrecy” — have been tried in court.

Because of that, Mr. Otis’s testimony was held behind closed doors to safeguard security secrets with only redacted transcripts made public.

Justice Robert Maranger of the Ontario Superior Court told jurors that Mr. Ortis “is quite possibly the first Canadian required to testify in their own defense without the ability to tell” the jury “the full story.”

That, combined with Mr. Ortis’s decision not to reveal several details, means that much about the case remains murky even after his lawyers and prosecutors submitted 500 pages of evidence they both agreed upon, as well as testimony from a dozen witnesses over seven weeks.

The case against Mr. Ortis emerged from an American investigation into another Canadian, Vincent Ramos, following that man’s arrest in Washington State in 2018.

Mr. Ramos whose company provided encryption services to drug cartels was sentenced to nine years in prison on racketeering and conspiracy charges.

His company, Phantom Secure, sold thousands of special cellphones it claimed were impervious to wiretaps and other surveillance techniques to various criminal groups around the world.

Investigators discovered that emails on a laptop belonging to Mr. Ramos contained confidential law enforcement documents, including a police assessment of criminal activity related to him, reports from Canada’s money laundering agency and a summary of information about Phantom Secure shared through an intelligence alliance between Canada, the United States, Australia New Zealand and Britain.

The documents were a sample of what Mr. Ortis offered to sell. In an email, which both sides agreed was sent by Mr. Ortis, using a pseudonym, “See All Things,” Mr. Ramos is urged to set up a secure email account and to receive more files in exchange for 20,000 Canadian dollars.

“I am in the business of acquiring hard-to-get information that individuals in unique high-risk businesses find valuable, I sell that information to them,” one email to Mr. Ramos said, adding that the sender had come “across a number of documents that pertain to your current efforts” saying, “some call this hacking, others cracking.”

During the trial, investigators said that they that found no evidence that Mr. Ortis received payments from Mr. Ramos or the two other men he was charged with providing secrets to or a fourth man who he was charged with attempting to provide information. He was also charged with breach of trust and unauthorized use of a computer.

But Mr. Ortis, in his testimony, said the emails were part of a special, top secret, international mission he launched while on a leave of absence in 2015 to study French. He said that what he called Project O.R. Nudge came to him from someone at “a foreign agency.”

An “undertaking” prevented him, he testified, from identifying that person or disclosing what threat to Canada prompted him to take on the task.

His agreement with the person, he said, even forbid him from telling anyone else at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or R.C.M.P., about the operation because his foreign counterpart said that there were “moles” within Canada’s national police force who would sidetrack or undermine the project.

Mr. Ortis said he used police reports and other intelligence on people under investigation as bait to get his four target to open email accounts using Tutanota, a secure email service based in Germany that is now known as Tuta.

In his testimony, Mr. Ortis said that Tutanota was in fact a “storefront” for police and intelligence agencies. Rather than offering secure email, he testified, it allowed investigators to harvest users’ communications, which were then distributed through the intelligence alliance of mainly English speaking allies known as Five Eyes.

While no one from Tutanota testified at the trial, Brandon Sundh, a spokesman for the company, said in an email that it ”has never cooperated with any secret service as a ‘storefront.’”

He added: “We see these untrue statements as an attack on the wider privacy community and a more generalized attack on citizens’ right to privacy.”

Ms. Kliewer, the prosecutor, told jurors that Project O.R. Nudge is a “fiction” that “doesn’t make any sense.”

“He did not operate on behalf of the R.C.M.P.,” Ms. Kliewer told the jury. “This was his own doing.”

Several members of the mounted police, including Mr. Ortis’s superior, testified that the unit Mr. Ortis ran was tasked solely with identifying national security threats and reporting them to the police force’s most senior leaders.

They said that he had no authority to engage in undercover operations or to turn over secret information.

Other evidence showed that Mr. Ramos set up a Tutanota account before Mr. Ortis could propose that step. That prompted a flurry of web searches about the service by Mr. Ortis, according to records entered in court.

Other computer records found by investigators show that Mr. Ortis, who holds a doctorate in cybercrime, researched how to anonymously transfer money, launder bitcoin and how to avoid video surveillance.

There was also no evidence of Project Nudge in any of the R.C.M.P.’s computer systems. In his testimony, Mr. Ortis said that because he wasn’t gathering intelligence, he wasn’t required to record his activity. The leaks Mr. Ortis was convicted of providing or trying to provide were limited to the four men and lasted a short period of time, according to the agreed statement of facts.

Mr. Ortis’s bail was revoked and he was led out of the courthouse in handcuffs by a pair of police officers after he hugged his two lawyers and three women came up to commiserate with him.

Mr. Ertel, his lawyer, said that Mr. Ortis would appeal.

“He couldn’t get a fair trial,” Mr. Ertel told reporters. “If you can’t say who gave you information or what the information was, and then you’re found guilty of acting without authority, what other rational conclusion could be drawn other than you defended yourself with one hand tied behind your back?”

During his extensive testimony, Mr. Ortis was asked by Mr. Ertel if he regretted his actions.

“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,” he said. “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.”

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