Cameron Ortis was acting on 'secret information' from foreign agency when allegedly leaking secret docs: lawyer

It is the first time Ortis’ version of events has been made public since he was arrested in 2019

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OTTAWA — Former RCMP director general of intelligence Cameron Ortis was acting on secret information from an unnamed foreign agency to protect Canada from “serious and imminent threats” when he allegedly leaked classified documents to suspected criminals, his lawyer said.

That’s the bombshell defence Mark Ertel dropped in court Thursday as he introduced the defence’s case. It is the first time Ortis’s version of events has been made public since he was arrested in 2019.

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During his upcoming testimony, Ortis is “going to tell all of you and Canada why he did what he did. He protected Canada from serious and imminent threats. And he’s going to tell you why he had a duty to act, why his actions were appropriate, why they were necessary… and he’ll tell you that he had the authority to do everything that he did.”

“Cameron Ortis is no enemy of Canada,” Ertel said.

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He said Ortis was acting on secret information from a foreign agency that cannot be named and that Ortis has no more access to what little paper trail there is of that information.

That’s because Ortis faces an unusual challenge in making his case to the court, Ertel told jurors. Due to national security laws that prohibit the disclosure of certain information, Ortis is limited in what he can reveal publicly about the information he was acting on and its source.

“His actions were in large part a result of secret information communicated to him by a foreign agency. And he’s going to be forbidden from telling you what the information was or what the foreign agency was. So, he’s defending himself with one hand tied behind his back,” Ertel said.

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“There are a lot of things that Mr. Ortis is not allowed to say. But he’s going to say everything that he can say, everything that the law allows him to say, because this is a unique case where the accused person… is not allowed to tell you the entirety of the defence,” he added.

Ortis, the RCMP’s former director general of intelligence, is facing 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.

He pleaded not guilty at the onset of his trial. Ortis is set to testify over the next few days. His lawyer said Ortis will not be swearing his oath on a religious document but affirming it.

Ortis wore a navy tailored suit and sat at a table on the left side of the courtroom as his lawyer stood at a lectern and read his opening statement to the 12 jurors. He watched his lawyer intently, a huge binder of documents in front of him and his legs twitching nervously from time to time.

Since the trial — which is the first time a Canadian is being tried for leaking national security documents under current laws — began five weeks ago, jurors have heard from roughly a dozen Crown witnesses.

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Prosecutors and witnesses have detailed how Ortis allegedly illegally leaked or tried to leak extremely sensitive RCMP and intelligence agency information to four suspected criminals about international police investigations involving them. An agreed statement of facts also says police found a trove of laptops, hard drives and USB keys containing top secret documents at Ortis’s home when he was arrested in 2019.

In one case, prosecutors allege Ortis promised to continue leaking sensitive information to B.C. businessman Vincent Ramos if he agreed to pay $20,000 for a first trove of classified documents. Ramos owned Phantom Secure, a company that sold hyper-encrypted cellphones to organized crime members.

Those documents contained classified RCMP documents, information from the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC), classified intelligence from foreign police and security agencies and briefings provided to the Vancouver Police Department.

Ortis is also alleged to have leaked or attempted to leak sensitive information about an international police investigation to Salim Hanareh, Muhammad Ashraf and Farzam Mehdizadeh. They were three Toronto business owners who were suspected at the time of being part of a massive money laundering ring run by Altaf Khanani.

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According to a 2015 U.S. Treasury department report, Khanani’s network laundered billions of dollars on behalf of drug traffickers and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Multiple Crown witnesses told the court that if any of the information found at Ortis’s home was leaked to the suspected criminals, the effects could have been devastating for the investigation, the agents involved, the RCMP and even other related probes in Canada and abroad.

Tuesday, Ortis’s former boss, retired RCMP assistant commissioner Todd Shean, told the court that what Ortis allegedly did was “so criminal” it left him sick to his stomach.

“This is so criminal and so reckless because as you disclose that information, you have no idea you’re disclosing potential hints on potential police operations, hints on potential police operations that are being run by partners that could have undercover officers in play. So, you’re putting their lives at risk,” Shean testified.

Thursday, Ortis’s lawyer told jurors they, like Shean, were probably “troubled” by what they had seen to date. But he encouraged them to keep an “open mind” as the defence begins laying out its case.

“He has a compelling story to tell. And within the limits that he faces, he’ll tell you everything he’s allowed to say,” Ertel said. “And you and (assistant) commissioner Shean and Canada will be satisfied that Cameron Ortis is no enemy of Canada and did not act at any time without authority or lose sight of his mission.”

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