RCMP Analyst’s Light Sentence for Leaking Secrets Is Far From Appropriate

What should be an appropriate sentence for treason? In Canada the answer is seven years – or less – apparently

This piece first appeared in The Epoch Times Canada on February 9, 2024.

Some countries execute traitors. In Canada, however…

I will never forget my first day in the Canadian intelligence community. It was July of 1983 and I had just moved to Ottawa from my home in southern Ontario to start a job with what I had been told was the Department of National Defence. Except that this was not really the whole story: I had been hired by something called Communications Security Establishment (CSE).

That day, I learned all about CSE and SIGINT (signals intelligence) from the organization’s head of internal security, an imposing ex-RCMP officer who put the fear of God into me. At the end of my “indoctrination” into the hyper sensitive world of spydom I was reminded that if I were to breach the secrecy of what I knew I would get “14 years in the slammer.” Fourteen years.  Remember that.

Cameron Ortis was hired as a civilian analyst by the RCMP because he was seen by some, including the commissioner of our national police force, as the “smartest guy in the room.” He impressed everyone who met him, apparently, and rose to a senior position with the Mounties. Mr. Ortis could do no wrong, it seemed.

Well, alleged genius is often paired with arrogance. Mr. Ortis must have believed he was so bright that he could do things others could not, up to and including disclosing sensitive RCMP intelligence to those who should not have been on the receiving end, among which were criminals.

For his sins, Mr. Ortis was arrested, tried, found guilty, and convicted last November of all six charges against him, including violating Canada’s secrets act. Treason, for that is precisely what he was shown to have committed, is a very serious crime. In some nations, traitors are put to death (not that I am an advocate of capital punishment).

In the lead-up to the sentence pronounced on Mr. Ortis, the Crown (the prosecution in Canada) asked for at least 28 years. The defence maintained that its client should be let go with time served, as he had endured “hardships” while in custody, including long periods in solitary confinement.

Ontario Superior Court judge Justice Robert Maranger, in sentencing Mr. Ortis on Feb. 7, stated that the Crown demand was “excessive” while the defence counter was “inadequate.”  So he did the classic Canadian thing: he split the difference and gave him a 14-year residency in one of our finer penal institutions (Q: Why did the Canadian cross the road? A: To get to the middle). With time served taken into consideration, Mr. Ortis will serve seven years and 155 days in the clink. Both sides are appealing the ruling.

Seven and a half years for, among other things, leaking special operational information “without authority” to a Canadian company that made secure encrypted phones which were sold to organized crime members and two men the RCMP suspects have ties to terrorists; trying to leak information to an infamous money launderer; and sharing Canadian intelligence and information from Canada’s allies in the Five Eyes (which is given to Canada on the understanding it will be protected). Is this enough?

Of course not!

As I was told more than 40 years ago, working in intelligence puts strict limits on what you can do and say, and with whom you can share sensitive data (in a nutshell only to those with a requisite security clearance and a “need to know”). I and my colleagues abided by those conditions because we believed in what we were doing and realized that any breach in the intelligence wall could have serious repercussions for Canada (not to mention death in the case of blown human intelligence—HUMINT).

Furthermore, his wanton disregard for Five Eyes procedures is another wound to Canada’s reputation among its closest allies. We are a net importer of intelligence and if our partners no longer trust us to guard their sources and methods they may start questioning our membership in this elite club. My sources tell me we are already seen as not pulling our weight in the Five Eyes.

That Mr. Ortis was found guilty under the Security of Information Act was an important first step in our ability to successfully hold trials where sensitive intelligence is part of the prosecution. But the wholly inadequate sentence handed down by Justice Maranger merely reconfirms Canada’s lack of appreciation for intelligence and the importance to safeguard it. If seven and a half years is seen as an appropriate penalty for what amounts to treason, where is the deterrent? (In fact, Mr. Ortis is unlikely to spend that much time behind bars if recent cases of early release are any indication.)

Canada has no sentencing guidelines for judges; that should probably be addressed. When it comes to cases like this, what is Justice Maranger’s experience with intelligence? Does he appreciate the enormity of what Mr. Ortis has betrayed? Does he understand the damage done to our reliability in the eyes of our allies?

Maybe trials like these, which thankfully are rare, need to be adjudicated in special courts where the judge has a fuller comprehension of secrets and intelligence. One thing is for sure: There needs to be a rethink of sentencing in our country and a greater inclusion of the larger, international implications for Canada.

I stuck to my commitment and have thus avoided 14 years in a penitentiary. Mr. Ortis did not, and got half of that. There is something very wrong with this math.

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.