Jury finds ex-RCMP intelligence executive guilty of leaking secrets in historic espionage trial

Cameron Ortis was found guilty of leaking classified information to suspected criminals in a landmark ruling on a historic espionage case

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OTTAWA — Former RCMP director general of intelligence Cameron Ortis is guilty of leaking classified information to suspected criminals, a jury announced Wednesday in a landmark ruling on a historic espionage case.

Ortis sat impassibly as the 12-person jury declared Ortis guilty on all six counts he was facing, including four under the Security of Information Act (SOIA) for leaking or attempting to leaking secrets without authority to suspected criminals.

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The verdict Wednesday puts an end, barring an appeal, to a four-year case that has kept Canada’s national security community in suspense since Ortis’s shocking arrest in 2019. His case is the first time an individual was tried under Canada’s current espionage law.

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

In other words, the key question the jury had to resolve was if Ortis had the authority to share or attempt to share classified information on international police investigations with four suspected criminals in 2015. He also faced two Criminal Code charges for breach of trust and misusing a computer.

After just over two days of deliberations, jurors found him guilty on all counts, which are punishable with up to 14 years of prison.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Robert Maranger then revoked Ortis’s bail until his sentencing hearing, which is set for January.

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“We will be seeking a very lengthy prison term” in the range of 20 years or more, prosecutor Judy Kliewer told the judge after the verdict was announced. “He’s not only a flight risk, but he’s an asset. He has so much information. This is not a usual case at all.”

At the end of the proceedings, Ortis stood quietly as his two lawyers, Mark Ertel and Jon Doody, and a few other individuals successively gave him a hug.

He then stood silently looking towards the empty judge’s bench until two Ottawa Police Service agents led him out of the courtroom, removed his blazer and belt, handcuffed him and escorted him out of the building.

Outside the courtroom, Kliewer told reporters she and her colleague John MacFarlane felt an immense sense of relief at the verdict, which proved that Canada could successfully prosecute espionage cases involving national security information.

“It’s been a long road. It’s been more than four years,” she said. “We’ve had no end of support in this prosecution. It’s been novel, it’s been stressful for everyone and we’re satisfied with the result.”

A dozen RCMP agents and Department of Justice lawyers who worked on the Ortis case stood behind reporters during the scrums, quietly elated and relieved at the ruling.

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Ortis’ lawyer, Mark Ertel, had teary eyes as he criticized the jury’s decision.

“We’re shocked and extremely disappointed. I think an innocent man has been found of six serious offences,” he told reporters outside the courthouse.

“I’ve had my faith in the jury system shaken before, but I really am at a loss for words. I can’t believe what happened,” he added. “This man has been punished enough for offenses that didn’t cause any harm to anyone.”

Ertel said Ortis would “for sure” appeal the ruling and would argue during his sentencing hearing that he had already spent enough time incarcerated (Ortis spent roughly three years in prison before his trial).

The sensitive information Ortis was found guilty of sharing or attempting to share with suspected criminals included top-secret RCMP information, intelligence from FINTRAC as well as Canadian and international intelligence agencies.

Using an anonymous email, Ortis sent classified information containing details of an international police investigation into Phantom Secure, which sold hyper-encrypted phones to organized crime, to the company’s head, Vincent Ramos.

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He was also found guilty of sending or trying to send top-secret intelligence and police information to Salim Henareh, Muhammad Ashraf and Farzam Mehdizadeh, who were suspected members of a massive international money laundering ring.

Throughout the seven-week trial, prosecutors described Ortis as a dangerous leaker who had betrayed his colleagues and country. They said his defence has “seven fatal flaws” and was not to be believed.

The Crown called a dozen RCMP witnesses, ranging from investigators to Ortis’s colleagues to his former boss and RCMP deputy commissioner Todd Shean.

Most RCMP witnesses testified there was no world in which Ortis’s actions were permissible. His former boss offered the strongest indictment of Ortis’s actions, calling them “so reckless” and “so criminal.”

Testifying for his defence, Ortis painted himself as a misunderstood patriot, saying his leaking of classified information to suspected criminals was part of an ultrasecret mission from a foreign agency that he was forbidden from speaking about because of alleged moles in the RCMP.

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He said his only objective was to get the four suspected criminals onto an encrypted email service that he said had been set up by a foreign intelligence agency as a “storefront.”

He denied being a criminal, betraying the RCMP or being an enemy of Canada.

Wesley Wark, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and national security expert, who followed the conclusion of the trial, said that the charges that matter the most are the ones under the SOIA.

“The SOIA charges and the key ones, the others are ancillary charges,” he said outside the courtroom on the final day of pleadings.

“If the Crown doesn’t win on the first four SOIA charges, I think they will regard this as a failure.”

Ortis’s trial is an unprecedented case for numerous reasons.

His case is the first time in Canadian history that someone is tried for allegedly leaking State secrets under the current version of the Security of Information Act, which was significantly reviewed following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

It is also widely considered to be a test of whether Canada can successfully prosecute espionage cases, which have to juggle strict limits on what can be disclosed as evidence if it involves national security information with an accused’s right to defend themselves fairly.

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Wednesday evening, prosecutor Judy Kliewer said the verdict showed it was possible.

“It is possible to have a public trial that ensures not only that the fair trial rights of the accused are respected, but also that the information that’s sensitive and at the core of the case can be protected. I think it’s a significant highlight for the Canadian law in this area,” she told reporters.

Wark said this case is also being closely followed by Canada’s intelligence allies.

“Certainly for allies, the Canadian justice system is on trial,” he said.  “Can we put bad guys behind bars that allegedly have communicated very sensitive intelligence in a way to enable organized crime figures? It will come down to the jury’s verdict.”

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