Once more into the breach

I remember my very first day as an ‘insider’ in the Canadian intelligence community as if it were yesterday.  It was July 13,1983.  I had moved to Ottawa from my hometown of London (Ontario) to accept a job at CSE – Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s signals intelligence agency.  I had already been accorded a top secret security clearance but was yet to be ‘indoctrinated’.  So there I was sat across from a man I’ll call ‘Joe’, being ‘read in’.

Much of what he told me was a blur (wait, we do WHAT?  You are pulling my leg, right sir?) but his last admonition to me was not. ‘Joe’ leaned across the desk and said: “Son (I was only 22 at the time), if you choose to disclose what we have told you to anyone without a ‘need to know’, IT’S 14 YEARS IN THE SLAMMER!”

I think I went home after that.

But I did take my responsibilities seriously and over my 32-year career did not disclose what I knew to anyone who should not have been told.  Whether that is because of a sense of patriotism, professionalism or abject fear of going to jail, or a combination of all three, I never forgot what Joe told me.

It appears ‘Joe’ never talked to Cameron Ortis.

The story that broke Friday is potentially big.  Mr Ortis has been arrested, charged and alleged to have leaked sensitive intelligence.  The RCMP analyst turned Director General is alleged to have been doing this since 2015, a fairly extensive period of time, which leads to the question of when it was first detected and why the investigation that led to charges took that long.

Mr. Ortis is of course innocent until found guilty.  The Mark Norman case, in which a senior Canadian naval officer was accused of also releasing sensitive information, should be a reminder of this legal pillar as the charges against him were dropped when the Crown determined there was ‘no reasonable chance of conviction’.  Then again there is Jeffrey Delisle, another military guy who was convicted of giving intelligence to the Russians.  So yes it does happen.

There has already been so much commentary in the media by ‘experts’, some of whom are former colleagues of mine at CSIS, so I really don’t want to belabour this issue (NB I also did a half dozen radio and TV interviews on the story yesterday).  There are a few things worth highlighting, however, in my opinion.  I first put pen to paper late Friday but due to technical issues was unable to publish this until now.  I think it has benefited from a time lag, the arrival of more info and a chance to talk to people.

Firstly it is hard to figure out what level of access he had.  As a ‘DG’ he would have been quite senior and hence not a ‘in the weeds’ kinda guy (that is what the analysts, like I used to be, are).  Yes he would have had the authority to see pretty much everything but I doubt he would have had the time to worry about the details.  It is thus uncertain how much really sensitive material he leaked.  In my time at CSIS none of the higher levels I reported to asked to see my sources: they trusted that I had done due diligence as a senior strategic analyst.

Secondly the damage to our relationship with our partners, especially the ‘5 eyes’ (a post WWII intelligence sharing agreement among Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US), has to be put in perspective.  Without knowing what he is alleged to have passed on – raw intercept, assessments, intelligence given to the RCMP by a foreign ally – it is impossible to conclude that irreparable harm has been done.  Besides it is not as if our friends have not had their own breaches of national security: anyone remember Edward Snowden or Bradley/Chelsea Manning?  Some have also made much of the fact that the US apparently tipped off the RCMP.  As I noted four years ago in the Aaron Driver terrorism case, who cares?  We scratch our allies’ backs and they scratch ours: that is how alliances work.

Finally it is true that incidents like this get a lot of attention in the media because they involve spies.  We have a fascination with James Bond and Jason Bourne, as farfetched as these ‘representatives’ are from actual intelligence work.  It is far from clear, at least to me, whether this is more smoke than fire.

There may or may not be more on this story as time unfolds.  Then again as it is a national security issue a blanket may be thrown over it to prevent more disclosures.  Mr. Ortis deserves his day in court and nothing has been proven yet.

As it turns out, I did learn from a contact who worked with the alleged leaker that Mr. Ortis was seen by some as ‘an arrogant so-in-so’ (although I can assure you the real phrase was not ‘so-in-so’). He was touted as ‘the golden boy’, an outsider who would show the ‘horsemen’ how to do analysis.  Interesting.  I am not trying to be critical of all those who come into intel from other pursuits such as academe (Mr. Ortis’ forte), but I have said it before and I’ll repeat it here: we who worked for decades in the business were a capable lot and not in need of a ‘Deus ex machina’ saviour to instruct us on how to do our jobs.  Thankfully we all got along just fine most of the time, whether we were ‘town’ or ‘gown’.

We will move on folks, especially as an election is underway in Canada.  There may be nothing more to see here.  Or maybe there is.  I guess we’ll just have to wait.  I’d like to think that the Mounties would not have taken this extraordinary step on a Friday afternoon without due cause.  This could be the ‘leak of the century’ or yet another story of no magnitude.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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