Cameron Ortis says he leaked info as part of ultra secret mission to lure suspected criminals into using an email service run by foreign agency

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OTTAWA – Former senior RCMP intelligence official Cameron Ortis painted himself as a misunderstood hero during his trial, saying his leaking of classified information to suspected criminals was part of an ultra-secret mission from an unnamed foreign agency to lure them into using an email service.

That supposedly encrypted email service was called Tutanota (now Tuta), and he said it was set up as a “storefront”, or fake business, by an unnamed foreign agency to collect intelligence from unknowing criminal users under the guise that it was an encrypted messaging service.

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“If targets begin to use that service, the agency that’s collecting that information would be able to feed it back, that information, into the (Five Eyes) system, and then back into the RCMP,” he told the court on Nov. 3, referring to an intelligence-sharing system used by Five Eyes intelligence alliance members (Canada, U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand).

In a statement Monday, Tuta said Ortis’ claims were “completely false.”

The reason Ortis said he couldn’t tell anyone, including his colleagues and bosses, about the mission from a foreign agency was because there were moles within the RCMP, he added.

“I had sensitive information from multiple sources that each of the subjects had compromised or penetrated Canadian law enforcement agencies… they had moles,” he told the court, according to a redacted transcript of the day’s proceedings.

He said he worried that telling even his bosses would allow “somebody to thwart my efforts,” he later added.

He said he began his ultra secret mission upon received “very compelling” information from a counterpart at a foreign agency in 2014 that “demonstrated clearly a direct and grave threat” to Canada.

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“I was given a strict caveat not to share the information with anyone,” he noted. But he said he could not give any more detail because he is severely limited by law in what he can disclose publicly and has had limited or no access to some of his emails and files at the RCMP.

The public, including media outlets, is excluded from the courtroom during Ortis’ testimony due to a court order that was unsuccessfully contested by a coalition of media organizations (including the National Post. Transcripts are being provided after the hearings.

Ortis, the RCMP’s former director general of intelligence, has pleaded not guilty to six charges, including four under the Security of Information Act for allegedly “intentionally and without authority” sharing or trying to share “special operational information” with four individuals in 2015.

Monday, Germany-based Tuta strongly denied Ortis’ claims and said it is “wholly owned” by founders Arne Möhle and Matthias Pfau.

“The Tutao GbmH is not owned by any secret service, nor is it a ‘storefront’ as claimed by Cameron Ortis,” reads the statement. “Tutanota has never and Tuta will never operate a “storefront” for any intelligence or law enforcement agency.”

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“The allegation that we have created any backdoor access for intelligence agencies made by Mr. Ortis is a complete and utter lie… We are actively working with our legal team to fight these slanderous claims.”

At the onset of his defence testimony, he insisted that he did not act in any criminal way and that he was no enemy of Canada. He said he did not regret what he’d done, but regretted what had happened since he was arrested in 2019.

“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,” he said.

He said he hatched his “intelligence operation”, called OR Nudge, following two calls from a counterpart at an unnamed foreign agency in 2014. He said the idea was to “simply nudge” targets onto Tutanota.

The operation began with a list of 10 potential subjects but was eventually paired down to four: Vincent Ramos, Salim Hanareh, Muhammad Ashraf and Farzam Mehdizadeh, the four men to whom he’s charged with leaking or trying to share confidential information.

Ramos was the CEO of Phantom Secure, which sold hyper-encrypted cellphones to organized crime members, whereas the three others were suspected of being low-level members of a massive international money laundering network run by Altaf Khanani.

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He said in all cases except for Mehdizadeh, he had determined that there were no “viable or ongoing” police investigations into them at the time. He said Farzam Mehdizadeh was quickly switched out for his son Masih when he realized the father was still under ongoing investigation.

Despite one email he sent to Ramos promising to send complete versions of sensitive police and intelligence documents on Phantom Secure in exchange for $20,000, Ortis says he never intended to receive payment nor get into the business of leaking documents for money.

He also denied statements by previous court witnesses, including his former boss and retired RCMP assistant commissioner Todd Shean, that he had put an undercover RCMP officer at risk by telling a Ramos associate to stay away from “someone friendly” who had approached him at an airport on a specific date.

“You would have to provide the individual’s name” to reveal the identity of an undercover police officer, he said.

Ortis is set to resume his cross-interrogation Tuesday.

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