Cameron Ortis, the former RCMP intelligence official accused of breaking Canada's secret intelligence law, was trying to sell RCMP operational information to individuals linked to the criminal underworld — including targets of police investigations — the Crown team said in its opening remarks Tuesday.
Crown prosecutor Judy Kliewer told the jury on the first day of the trial that they would be weighing a "highly unusual case."
Earlier in the day, Ortis — who served as the director of the RCMP's national intelligence co-ordination centre in Ottawa at the time of his arrest — entered a not guilty plea on all charges against him. He stood tall, with his chin up, as he entered his pleas.
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.
"What makes this case interesting is not only was Mr. Ortis a man permanently bound by secrecy, but he was one of the highest ranking," Kliewer said.
She told the jury that in 2013, police forces around the world were becoming increasingly concerned about criminal organizations using encrypted phones to conceal their business.
"Law enforcement around the world were going dark on criminals," Kliewer said.
At the time, she said, the RCMP had its eyes on a Vancouver-based company called Phantom Secure, which it believed was providing encrypted phones at a price. The force had launched Project Saturation but was making little progress, she said.
That changed in 2018 when the FBI was closing in on Vincent Ramos, the CEO of Phantom Secure Communications. When they arrested him in Las Vegas that year, Kliewer said, the RCMP was invited to go through Ramos's computer.
That's when the RCMP noticed something "strange and alarming," said Kliewer.
She said the investigating officer found a 2015 email from an unnamed sender with 10 attachments he recognized as RCMP documents.
Crown prosecutor Judy Kliewer makes her opening statement in the trial of Cameron Ortis on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2023. (Sketch by Lauren Foster-MacLeod)
Kliewer told the jury the sender was asking for $20,000 in exchange for more information.
"It was quite evident that Mr. Ramos had received from this author information that disclosed the identity of an undercover operator that had been asked to approach Mr. Ramos's associate," said Kliewer.
"All of this, it's not disputed, was special operational information."
Kliewer said it took about 18 months for police to conclude it was Ortis who had sent the documents, leading to his arrest in the fall of 2019.
But that's not where the investigation ended, Kliewer said.
She said police combed through Ortis's home and office and found an encrypted USB drive that they were able to partially decrypt.
The Crown alleges police found a folder called "The Project," which included the documents sent to Ramos and scripts for communications with Ramos.
"Unfortunately, that's not all they found," said Kliewer.
"Police found documents, RCMP documents, emails and scripts for communications to more targets of international police investigation."
Cameron Ortis, a former RCMP intelligence director accused of disclosing classified information, sits and listens to jury selection in his trial at the Ottawa Courthouse on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. (Sketch by Lauren Foster-MacLeod)
Around 2015, Kliewer said, the Five Eyes alliance — an intelligence sharing network made up of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand — had identified a common international threat: a money laundering network headed by Altaf Khanani.
The U.S. Treasury Board has said Khanani's organization "launders illicit funds for organized crime groups, drug trafficking organizations, and designated terrorist groups throughout the world."
At the time, the RCMP was investigating three people in the Toronto area who were running money service businesses and "it was believed that they had links to the Khanani network," said Kliewer. One of those was a man named Farzam Mehdizadeh.
She said police found documents and scripts on the USB drive from Ortis's place sent to Khanani's associates Salim Hanareh and Muhammad Ashraf. She said they found another set of documents and a cover letter that was meant to be sent to Mehdizadeh's son.
The jury heard that an RCMP investigator was able to track down Hanareh and Ashraf and confirm the documents had been sent.
Question of authority
Kliewer told the jury that many of the facts in the case have been agreed to by both sides. Ortis is permanently bound by secrecy and there is no question that "the information communicated was special operational information," she said.
"Most of what I told you is not in dispute," Kliewer said. "The issue appears to be whether what he did was with authority, whether he was authorized to communicate what he did."
Orti's lawyers have not yet made their case in court, but outside the courtroom, his 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."
Kliewer said there are no records that Ortis was tasked with a covert undercover operation.
She told the jury they'll hear from his colleagues and his superiors that "no one had any idea of what Mr. Ortis was doing by communicating to these persons in 2015."
Kliewer also noted that Ortis was on leave for French-language training when he sent most of the anonymous emails.
Mounties could testify as witnesses
As the defendant walked into court Tuesday morning, he told reporters he felt good and smiled at the cameras.
On Tuesday morning, 12 jurors and two alternates were selected. By 2 p.m., one juror had dropped out.
Two high-profile Mounties could take the stand during the trial. Former RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson and the current commissioner, Mike Duheme, who previously oversaw federal policing, are on the witness list read out to potential jurors Tuesday morning.
Cameron Ortis was previously director general of the RCMP's national intelligence co-ordination centre in Ottawa. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)
The RCMP has said given his role, Ortis had access to national and multinational investigations and coveted intelligence.
"This is extremely unprecedented," said Jess Davis, a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence 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."
Cameron Jay Ortis, right, a former RCMP intelligence director accused of disclosing classified information, returns to the Ottawa Courthouse during a break in proceedings in Ottawa, on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. (Spencer Colby/Canadian Press)
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.
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
The Federal Court had to determine which sensitive items of 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 could run between four and eight weeks.