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Intelligence sharing is threatened when all don’t play by the rules

The Cameron Ortis case reminds us that when we agree to receive intelligence from an ally we need to protect it

Of all the issues surrounding the Cameron Ortis – he is the RCMP official up on charges of giving intelligence to those who should not have received it – the one that seems to be getting short shrift is the most important one of all.

I am not talking about the lawsuit launched by three former civilian Mounties who allege workplace harassment. Nor am I referring to the damage to the RCMP’s reputation, which is certainly under enough strain already. Nor do I mean what it says about RCMP culture, accusations that is an ‘old-boys network where chums look out for one another.

Collecting Hollywood
Another case of systemic bias?? (Photo: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies)

As interesting as all those may be, the single greatest threat arising from the Ortis case is the possibility that Canada may be cut off from allied intelligence.

I do not want to make too much of this possibility as I find it a little disingenuous that some in the US are pointing their finger north at Canada as the ‘weak link’ in the 5-Eyes anglo alliance, appearing to ignore that country’s long history of leaks – and leakers.

But still, what Ortis is alleged to have done is serious.

We in Canada are very fortunate to be part of the 5 Eyes, a post WWII club that enables the sharing of very sensitive information among the partners (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US), up to very critical signals intelligence (SIGINT) and imagery (IMINT). This agreement to give and get relies critically on each partner’s ability and promise to protect it and not hand it over to anyone without a ‘need to know’.

Whom Ortis shared it with and why is still to be determined. Whatever the outcome, even the perception that he did in fact disclose what he should not have is damage enough. It does not take a lot to undermine these arrangements and Canada, as a net importer of intelligence, has to be extra careful in this regard.

When I took my oath way back in 1983, I took the words I read to heart. I was careful to talk about secret (and top secret) intelligence only with those with the necessary clearance and a need to know. I had access to very closely held compartmentalised, higher classification material that was even more in need of protection and I did what I could to protect it. And even if I do talk and write a lot about what I did in my ‘retirement’, I do not disclose what must not be disclosed.

Ortis does not appear to think like me.

Why he elected to break not just the law but his own oath remains to be discovered. Was it arrogance? For money? Was he blackmailed? No one knows and as Diane Francis wrote recently in the Financial Times all documents and proceedings have been sealed by the courts. In other words, we may never know.

Frankly, I don’t give a rat’s ass why Ortis did it. The bottom line is that he should not have done so. An oath is an oath after all and unless you want to pull an Edward Snowden and make up your own rules then you have to abide by it.

If an oath is too much for you to follow then intelligence is not the business for you. Seek other lines of employment.

I hope that the repercussions of the Ortis case are not that dire for Canada. I also hope that whatever punishment he eventually gets is severe enough to act – one hopes – as a deterrent for future scofflaws.

Intelligence may not be the be all and end all but it is an important part of government information and decision-making. We who had access to it had a responsibility to our nations and to our partners.

Ortis clearly did not get that.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Director of the National Security programme at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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