Prosecutors seek 28-year max sentence against RCMP mole Ortis, for endangering Canadians
Maximum jail term will send a message to Five Eyes that Canada can guard secrets, court hears
Prosecutors are seeking 28 years — the maximum sentence allowed in Canadian law — against former RCMP intelligence boss Cameron Ortis, who was convicted for a leak of national security secrets that has endangered Canadians and betrayed the nation’s closest allies, a court in Ottawa heard Thursday.
Ortis, looking haggard, wearing a grey suit, with white-collared shirt open at the neck, sat in a glass-walled cage, guarded by two police officers wearing bullet-proof vests.
“We're talking about someone who is at the highest level of trust in the RCMP,” prosecutor Judy Kliewer argued, asking for two consecutive sentences of 14 years.
“His position entrusted him with the keys to the most sensitive information. His conduct betrayed the Five Eyes,” she added. “It jeopardizes the safety of Canadians because it risks the ability of Canada to keep receiving information it needs to protect national security.”
Ortis, a University of B.C. graduate and expert on Chinese cyber-hackers, was convicted on three charges for leaking Five Eyes investigation plans to Iranian terror-financing networks that used organized crime in Toronto to launder billions through Canadian banks. He was also convicted for tipping off Vincent Ramos, a Vancouver-based tech CEO that sold “uncrackable” Blackberries to Hezbollah-associated money launderers and drug-traffickers worldwide.
According to Kliewer the precedent-setting case revolved around 51-year-old Ortis’ “seat at the throne” of Operations Research, a small unit of elite intelligence analysts that he hand-picked with the support of former RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson.
The unit had an innovative mission to disrupt the most serious threats to Canada, by winning special access to highly sensitive signals intelligence collected from the United States, Australia and United Kingdom, and other intelligence partners, including CSIS and CSE.
The documents that Ortis leaked, he collected from Operations Research and other RCMP units and databases in 2014 and 2015.
Prosecutors sought a 14-year sentence for the Ramos leak, followed by 14 more years for leaks to Middle Eastern-linked crime cells in Toronto. In the Toronto case, Kliewer said Ortis could have exposed a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration confidential informant in Montreal.
Ortis also risked the life of an RCMP undercover operator in the Vancouver-based investigation against Ramos, and risked exposing United States government informants in the investigations of Hezbollah-associated money laundering and terror-financing kingpin Altaf Khanani, court heard.
The cases involved meticulous execution of separate plans “with different streams of information” that had distinct impacts worldwide, according to prosecutors.
“The seriousness of the offence is someone that is willing to do what it takes to betray their country,” Kliewer said. “Our partners are looking to us, and saying ‘How are you going to deal with Mr. Ortis?’”
It is the first time a Canadian has been convicted under the Security of Information Act for willfully leaking “state secrets” she added, asking Justice Robert Maranger to send a message to Canada’s allies that Five Eyes confidences will be protected.
Kliewer reiterated that Ortis cultivated his team at Operations Research and advocated for their groundbreaking access to international intelligence, which has traditionally been the remit of CSIS. The unit has been disbanded in the wake of Ortis’ case, which is believed to be among the most sensitive and damaging to Canada’s standing, in the nation’s history.
Kliewer argued that Ortis’ intentional leveraging of his unique access to Western secrets justifies the maximum sentencing for his crimes.
“In fact, he undermined international investigations. He took the information his colleagues were working on and he disclosed it to targets of investigation who they were working to take down,” she said. “He was taking the information of the Five Eyes to lessen the impact of transnational organized crime and terror-financing. And he betrayed them all.”
For context, Kliewer explained that Khanani’s network, based in Dubai, “had tentacles” of money laundering worldwide, with numerous agents in Canada including the RCMP targets in Toronto that Ortis reached out to: Salim Henareh, Farzam Mehdizadeh, and Muhammad Ashraf.
For Henareh, a Toronto currency trader connected to $3.5 Billion in suspect banking transactions, Ortis leaked hundreds of Fintrac records, alerting Henareh’s international networks that their methods were under scrutiny.
“Mr. Ortis gave to Salim Henareh, the most important information available to law enforcement to detect money laundering and terror-financing,” Kliewer said.
Regarding Farzam Mehdizadeh, who ran a plastics company allegedly connected to Iran’s weapons programs, Ortis alerted Mehdizadeh’s family that their Toronto currency shop was targeted by the Five Eyes, in an operation ultimately aimed at snaring Altaf Khanani.
“Khanani, the Number One target of all the Five Eyes. The Number One target that the United States already had long-term investigations into,” Kliewer stressed. “And let’s not forget Mr. Ortis drafted an email to Khanani. He wanted all of this information to go to Khanani. He undermined the very efforts that are aimed at undermining criminal and terrorist organizations.”
In the case, Ortis was accused by prosecutors also of stealing espionage-related “Orcon and Gamma” intelligence after 2015, including U.S. signals intelligence that police and prosecutors believe Ortis was poised to share with Chinese diplomats in September 2019, The Bureau’s review of recently unsealed court records shows.
An RCMP document unsealed after Ortis was convicted, says the force’s mole-hunting detectives probed the RCMP database searches that Ortis made from June to September 2019.
"Among his queries were subjects that related to China, embassies, and something that appears to be a national security investigation," RCMP documents said.
But Ortis didn’t face charges on his suspected plan to share classified intelligence with China because Justice Maranger decided exposing the documents in question to the scrutiny of a public trial would be too damaging to Canada’s interests.
In November, immediately after a jury convicted Ortis, Kliewer argued he shouldn’t be released prior to sentencing, saying: “He is not only a flight risk, but an asset. He has so much information.”
But Kliewer didn’t shed any more light on this argument Thursday, meaning in this trial at least, Canadians will have no chance to discover the nature of the China-related intelligence that Ortis stole and cached away.
RCMP’s description of Ortis’ database searches in 2019 — on topics related to Chinese embassies and a particular national security investigation — raises the distinct possibility that Ortis may have been gathering details on CSIS’s top counter-intelligence investigation of that time: a high-profile, sensitive probe into China’s 2019 federal election interference run by “confirmed intelligence actors” in China’s Toronto Consulate.
In that probe, started in January 2019, CSIS was wire-tapping Toronto Consulate officials and following them to clandestine meetings with a Canadian politician and a Mandarin-language journalist in Toronto, according toThe Bureau’s national security sources.
Court records unsealed after the Ortis jury ruling also show he collected hundreds of top secret signals intelligence records from unidentified Canadian allies starting in 2014, and many of these reports were judged by CSE, Canada’s signals intelligence agency, to present a “severe” risk if released to foreign agencies.
An RCMP forensic analysis of the devices seized from Ortis in September 2019 found he was using “his high security clearance … [with] access to some of the most sensitive intelligence of Canada and its allies including Orcon and Gamma reporting,” to misappropriate records while meticulously “categorizing and processing” these documents.
And Ortis continued his collection and processing of such intelligence throughout 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, according to RCMP documents.
“This information [taken by Ortis from 2014 to 2019] could still reside in the 'cloud' until such time that the police were able to detect and delete the data,” unsealed RCMP reports concluded.
In 2019, Dr. Eric Bisaillon, now Canada’s director general of Cyber Defence Capabilities, filed a similar report for prosecutors, saying Ortis’ “continued access to information stored online is a very real possibility.”
Yet another RCMP report from 2019 said the force believed Ortis had information of such value to “foreign entities” that an unidentified foreign interest might exfiltrate Ortis before his trial commenced.
Meanwhile, Ortis’ lawyers will argue the time he spent in an Ottawa jail prior to his trial amounted to inhumane treatment of the sort prisoners in China experience, Kliewer told Justice Maranger on Thursday.
Kliewer remarked dryly before closing her arguments, that any comparison between Canadian and Chinese jail conditions in the Ortis case “would not be appropriate.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated throughout the sentencing hearing on January 11, 2024.
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