The Mounties get their man – and he is one of their own

We must remind ourselves that all of this is alleged and not proven. Cameron Ortis is, of course, innocent until any of this is demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt. It does not look good, but we must wait and see. Even if the details are salacious.

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on September 23, 2019.

The world of intelligence is by definition a murky one.  Most times what our spies do is only shared with those who have a ‘need to know’, i.e. someone with a security clearance required to see and use classified information.  If we hear stories about what they do it is generally not good, at least from the perspective of the spies.  When the curtain is pulled back, even a bit, it is usually not on purpose but due to an unauthorized breach.

This is exactly what appears to be happening in Ottawa with the arrest and charging of a senior RCMP official, Cameron Ortis, accused of giving something to someone illegally.  Precisely what and to whom is not clear and we on the outside may not be given any details any time soon, if ever.  That is how secrecy works after all.

A lot has already been said and written on this case as one ‘expert’ after another has weighed in on what may have happened and what it all means.  Full disclosure, I am one of those former intelligence insiders who has provided some comments, although I prefer not to be called an expert as the term means next to nothing in a world where anyone can claim to be so.

Rather than rehash what has already been said, I’d like to provide some insights into what is at stake.  Firstly, organizations such as the RCMP and CSIS – where I worked for 15 years – suffer from a dual personality.  It is not quite an ‘us vs. them’ world but the distinction between regular members (or intelligence officers at CSIS) and civilians is a longstanding one.  Uniformed RCMP officers (and CSIS IOs) get special training and are the backbone of each agency, responsible for recruiting and running human sources/agents and leading investigations.  Non regular members (or non-IOs) play a supporting role, albeit an important one.  There is a sense that the ‘real’ Mounties are somewhat better and more central to the Force’s mandate. That Mr. Ortis was a civilian, an outsider, who rose to the level of Director General may stick in the craw of some, I’d wager, and feed the dichotomy.  I must add, however, that in my experience at CSIS while the two ‘solitudes’ did, and do, exist I worked beside IOs every day and got along very well with most of them.

Secondly even if we do not know for certainty what he gave away (or sold) there are reports that it was sensitive and that the damage to the RCMP, to the wider Canadian security intelligence community, and to our allies, may be ‘high’, to quote CSE (Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s signals intelligence agency, where I started my career 36 years ago).  To me that suggests he may have compromised one or more of three things: sources, methods or ongoing operations.  These are the crown jewels of intelligence and law enforcement agencies and must be protected at all costs.  That they may have been leaked is not good.

We must remind ourselves that all of this is alleged and not proven. Mr. Ortis is of course innocent until any of this is demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt.  It does not look good but we must wait and see.  Even if the details are salacious.

Phil Gurski is a former senior strategic analyst at CSIS and worked for 32 years in the Canadian intelligence community