Cameron Ortis, the former RCMP intelligence official charged with leaking top-secret information, is finally heading to trial today for one of the most sensitive court cases in Canadian history.
As the former director general of the RCMP’s national intelligence co-ordination centre in Ottawa, Ortis had access to national and multinational investigations and coveted intelligence.
He faces six charges, including four counts of violating the Security of Information Act.
The 51-year-old is accused of 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 claims were the intended recipients of his alleged leaks — are likely to come out during the trial. For now, court documents only identify those parties by their initials: V.R., S.H., M.A. and F.M.
“This is extremely unprecedented,” said Jess Davis, a former analyst at the Canadian Intelligence Security Service. “Ortis is someone who held a very high position in a very sensitive part of the RCMP.
“It’s shaken the core of the public service and the security and intelligence community because this is someone who lots of people had contact with, lots of people would have had opportunity to work with.”
Davis, now president of Insight Threat Intelligence, said she’ll be watching to see the evidence the Crown presents about possible motive, whether the RCMP employed proper checks and balances to protect its intelligence and how the defence makes its case.
Ortis’s lawyer Mark Ertel said his client is looking forward to testifying in the coming weeks.
“We believe he has a compelling story and that he won’t be found guilty of any charges,” Ertel said.
“He’s charged with doing things without authority and we believe that we’ll be able to establish that he did have authority to do everything he did.”
Security of Information Act charges are rare
This will be the first time a court tests charges under the Security of Information Act.
“It’s pretty groundbreaking,” said Leah West, who practises national security law and teaches at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
“Not only is it a test case, there could be a lot of lessons learned for how to deal with intelligence-to-evidence cases in other contexts, where we want to prosecute other national security cases.”
There’s only been one conviction under the Security of Information Act in the 21-year-old law’s history. A Canadian naval officer pleaded guilty in 2012 to selling secrets to Russia during a preliminary hearing.
“Charges are super rare. Convictions are rare. Trials are the rarest,” said West.
It’s taken more than four years for Ortis’s case to make it to trial.
He was arrested in September of 2019 and held behind bars for more than three years. He was released on bail in December under strict conditions.
Ortis’s trial was held up when his original lawyer, Ian Carter, was appointed a judge to the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario in Ottawa last year. His new lawyers, 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 which sensitive information could be disclosed under the Canada Evidence Act.
Davis said it’s likely the public will never see the full picture, given the national security concerns.
“There’s plenty of things that Canadians will just never know,” she said.
“But we’ll still get a good view of internal processes at the RCMP, a good sense of the investigation and at the end of the day, we’ll get a verdict.”
West said Justice Robert Maranger will have to constantly balance the need to protect national security information with the accused’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 open court principle and our right as the public to understand, and the right of the accused to know all of the information that’s been used against [them],” she said.
Ortis’s trial is scheduled to run eight weeks.
It kicks off Tuesday with jury selection.