By his lawyer’s account, the stakes were high when Cameron Ortis undertook a covert mission while working at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as the civilian director of an elite intelligence unit. “He protected Canada from serious and imminent threats,” lawyer Mark Ertel told a jury in Ottawa.
But prosecutors and witnesses at Mr. Ortis’ trial said there was no such mission and that instead he provided sensitive information to people under criminal investigation without the authorization or knowledge of the police force.
“His story was nothing more than an attempt to make people believe that his criminal and motivated acts were aimed at some noble and secret purpose,” Judy Kliewer, one of the prosecutors, told jurors, while acknowledging that the real motive of Mr. Ortis remains a mystery to investigators.
Mr Ortis was convicted on Wednesday of four counts of providing confidential operational information to four men who had been the target of police investigations under a secrecy law, as well as breach of trust and unauthorized use of a computer .
Mr. Ortis will be sentenced in January. Ms. Kliewer said she would ask for a sentence of more than 20 years.
“For someone in Mr. Ortis’ position, nothing less than a very severe sentence would be appropriate,” he told reporters.
It was a notable fall for Mr. Ortis, 51, who even prosecutors agreed was well-respected when he was arrested in 2020 and charged with providing classified information.
He went from his role as director of operations research, the position he held when prosecutors said he was leaking secrets, to director general of the National Intelligence Coordination Unit. Both were unusually high-level positions for a civilian within the national police force.
The trial was the first in which charges under the Canada Act 1985 were faced Information Security Act – which makes Mr. Ortis “permanently bound to secrecy” – were tried in court.
For this reason, Mr. Otis’ testimony was held behind closed doors to safeguard security secrets and only the redacted transcripts were made public.
Justice Robert Maranger of the Ontario Superior Court told jurors that Mr. Ortis “is very likely the first Canadian asked to testify in his own defense without the opportunity to tell” the jury “the whole story.”
That, combined with Ortis’ decision not to reveal several details, means that much of the case remains unclear even after his lawyers and prosecutors presented 500 pages of evidence they both agreed on, as well as testimony from a dozen of witnesses over seven weeks.
The case against Mr. Ortis emerged from an American investigation into another Canadian, Vincent Ramos, following his arrest in Washington state in 2018.
Mr. Ramos, whose company provided encryption services to drug cartels, was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of racketeering and criminal conspiracy.
His company, Phantom Secure, sold thousands of special cell phones that it deemed indispensable for wiretapping and other surveillance techniques to various criminal groups around the world.
Investigators found that emails on a laptop belonging to Mr. Ramos contained confidential law enforcement documents, including a police assessment of criminal activity related to him, reports from the Canadian Money Laundering Agency and a summary of information about Phantom Secure shared through an intelligence alliance between Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain.
The documents were a sample of what Mr Ortis had offered to sell. In an email, which both parties agreed was sent by Mr Ortis, using a pseudonym, “See All Things”, Mr Ramos is asked to create a secure email account and receive more files in exchange for 20,000 Canadian dollars.
“My job is to acquire hard-to-get information that individuals in unique high-risk businesses find valuable, I sell them that information,” an email to Mr. Ramos said, adding that the sender had come across “a number of documents pertaining to your current endeavors” saying, “some call this hacking, others cracking.”
During the trial, investigators said they found no evidence that Mr. Ortis had received payments from Mr. Ramos or from the two other men to whom he was accused of giving secrets or from a fourth man who was accused of attempting to provide information. He was also charged with breach of trust and unauthorized use of a computer.
But Mr Ortis, in his testimony, said the emails were part of a special, top secret, international mission he launched while he was on leave in 2015 to study French. He said what he called Project OR Nudge came to him from someone in “a foreign agency.”
An “undertaking” prevented him, he testified, from identifying that person or revealing what threat to Canada had prompted him to take on the job.
His agreement with the person, he said, even prohibited him from telling anyone else about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or RCMP, about the operation because his foreign counterpart had said there were “moles” within the force Canadian national police forces that would have derailed or undermined the project.
Mr. Ortis said he used police reports and other intelligence information about people under investigation as bait to convince his four targets to open email accounts using Tutanota, a secure email service based in Germany that now it is known as Tuta.
In his testimony, Mr Ortis said Tutanota was in fact a “showcase” for police and intelligence agencies. Instead of offering secure emails, he testified, he allowed investigators to collect users’ communications, which were then distributed through the intelligence alliance of mostly English-speaking allies known as Five Eyes.
Although no one from Tutanota testified at the trial, Brandon Sundh, a spokesman for the company, said in an email that it has “never collaborated with any intelligence service as a ‘shop’.”
He added: “We view these false statements as an attack on the broader privacy community and a more generalized attack on citizens’ right to privacy.”
Ms. Kliewer, the prosecutor, told jurors that the OR Nudge project is a “sham” that “makes no sense.”
“He was not operating on behalf of the RCMP,” Ms. Kliewer told the jury. “This was her doing.”
Several members of the Mounted Police, including Mr. Ortis’ superior, testified that the unit run by Mr. Ortis was tasked solely with identifying threats to national security and reporting them to the police force’s most senior leaders. They said he had no authority to engage in undercover operations or provide classified information.
Other evidence showed that Mr. Ramos created a Tutanota account before Mr. Ortis could propose that step. That prompted a flurry of Web searches about the service by Mr. Ortis, according to court filings.
Other computer documents found by investigators show that Mr Ortis, who holds a doctorate in cybercrime, studied how to transfer money anonymously, launder bitcoin and how to avoid video surveillance.
There was also no evidence of Project Nudge into any of the RCMP’s computer systems. In his testimony, Mr. Ortis said that because he was not collecting information, he was not obliged to record his activities.
The leaks that Mr Ortis was convicted of providing or attempting to provide were limited to the four men and lasted a short period of time, according to the agreed statement of facts.
Mr. Ortis’s lease was revoked and he was led out of the courthouse in handcuffs by a pair of police officers after he hugged his two lawyers and three women approached to commiserate with him.
Mr. Ertel, his lawyer, said Mr. Ortis would appeal.
“He failed to get a fair trial,” Ertel told reporters. “If you can’t say who gave you information or what the information was, and then you are found guilty of acting without authority, what other rational conclusion could be drawn other than that you defended yourself with one hand tied behind your back?”
During his extensive testimony, Ertel asked Mr. Ortis if he regretted his actions.
“I don’t make decisions based on my career or career prospects, but I couldn’t have imagined or imagined that any of this would happen,” he said. “Of course, in a certain sense I regret for everyone what has happened in the last four years. But what I did wasn’t wrong.”