The spy next door

The arrest of a senior Canadian intelligence official on allegations of stealing classified materials has shaken the international intelligence community.


This piece appeared in The Hill Times on September 30, 2019

Well, I suppose it was bound to happen. Our fearless leader, the man of the 2010s, the feminist international heartthrob Justin Trudeau appears to have a blemish. Apparently, in 2001, he appeared in ‘blackface’ at a party at a private school he attended. The theme was ‘Arabian Nights’ and he also wore a turban.

Oh horror of horrors! Has a greater sin ever been committed in the annals of human history? Can Justin recover from this (NB he has issued an apology)? Is the world ever going to be the same? Are there any other rhetorical questions I can ask?

I do not want this column to be about things we did when we were young and which come back to haunt us later: after all, which one of us has NEVER done something that crossed a line only to be brought up decades later? Neither do I want to dwell on the impact this is having on our democracy as I am sure there are many who will question whether to stand for office for fear of having something dragged up that will cause embarrassment.

No, what I want to focus on is something more fundamental: how well do we know others? We probably do ok at knowing ourselves, a little less our immediate family, even less our friends. What about our neighbours? Our workmates? Our casual acquaintances?

Loose lips sink ships

All this is coming out in the Cameron Ortis case. He of course us the RCMP civilian charged with breaching all kinds of secrets in a case that got a lot of attention when it broke last Friday (September 13 – how ominous!). Not surprisingly, we are not privy to many details for two main reasons. Firstly, the matter is now before the courts and Mr. Ortis deserves to be tried there, not in the court of public opinion. Secondly, I am sure the RCMP, and by extension the government, does not want to let out too much more since any further leaks could do more damage (‘loose lips sink ships’).

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Still I have found one aspect of this story fascinating – and all too familiar. In the many pieces I have read in a variety of Canadian news outlets there is a consistent theme. Mr. Ortis is described, by a host of contacts ranging from friends to his PhD supervisor, as brilliant, driven, geeky, ‘smarter than everybody’, arrogant, confident, unassuming, even ‘ Clark Kent in looks and in his dedication to do the right thing.’

So which one is it?

Or is it all of the above? After all we are complex beings made up of many moving – and thinking – parts. Can we not be ‘brilliant’ and ‘arrogant’ simultaneously?

I have no idea who Mr. Ortis is or whether he is guilty of the accusations made against him. I never met him and couldn’t pick him out of a one-person lineup. But there is much about this that I am familiar with: very familiar.

I cannot tell you how many times I have read, or been told, that so-and-so cannot be who others say he is.

“My neighbour has been arrested on terrorism charges? That is impossible! He was the nicest guy! He shoveled my laneway in winter and picked up my mail when I was away. There is simply no way he built a pressure cooker bomb and left it on Sparks Street at noon, timed to go off when there was the greatest risk of casualties. I simply refuse to believe it!”

Average people

The unfortunate truth is that those who break the law, whether as spies or terrorists, tend to be normal. They are not disproportionately suffering from some mental crisis. They are average people with average lives and average problems. Every attempt to ‘profile’ these actors has failed. Some things in life are truly unpredictable. Maybe Mr. Ortis’ alleged actions are a case in point. Maybe we need to stop blaming the RCMP, as some of my former intelligence colleagues have done, for not getting their man earlier. Maybe ‘stuff’ happens.

None of this should imply that we cannot get better at identifying and stopping bad actors sooner. There is always room for improvement and lesson learning. We have to keep trying.

Still I fear one thing is clear: we have met the enemy and he is us (thanks Pogo!).

Phil Gurski is a retired senior strategic analyst at CSIS. His fifth book, When Religion Kills, will be published this December by Lynne Rienner.