One of Cameron Ortis’s former colleagues once said he was “pretty well given carte blanche” as head of a national security unit within the RCMP and that even officers in the upper echelon of the force didn’t know what he was up, the jury in his trial heard Friday morning.
Trial of former intelligence official focusing on whether he had authority to share information
Catharine Tunney · CBC News
One of Cameron Ortis’s former colleagues once said he was “pretty well given carte blanche” as head of a national security unit within the RCMP — and even high-ranking officers didn’t know what he was up to — the jury in his trial heard Friday morning.
The statement, attributed to senior intelligence officer Marie-Claude Arsenault, was read out loud to the jury by Ortis’s defence lawyer Mark Ertel as the defence tried to poke holes in the Crown’s claim that their client shared special operational information “intentionally and without authority.”
Ortis has pleaded not guilty to six charges against him — four under the Security of Information Act and two Criminal Code violations.
On Friday morning, defence lawyer Mark Ertel cross-examined retired RCMP chief superintendent Warren Coons, who once ran the National Intelligence Coordination Centre (NICC). The centre was set up to stay on top of emerging intelligence of interest to the force, said Coons.
At the time, Ortis was director of operations research (OR) within RCMP National Security, which was tasked with “developing high risk operational intelligence,” according to evidence entered as part of the agreed statement of fact.
Under cross-examination, Coons acknowledged there was not always a “robust” relationship between the two units.
“I guess there were times when there was tension between us, but in a professional working environment and a high-stress working environment that’s not uncommon, ” he said.
He also said the use of high-level intelligence in criminal investigations “was all new.”
Ex-NICC head says no one has that much latitude at RCMP
Coons and Ertel had a testy exchange when the lawyer read Arsenault’s comments out loud. She served as a superintendent, below Coons, at the NICC.
“Even from senior management, like, I would venture to say, they didn’t know everything that was being done in OR, like he was pretty well given carte blanche,” says the statement Ertel read into the court record.
Coons pushed back.
“You’re parsing words,” he said.
“I don’t agree that anybody in the RCMP was given carte blanche to do anything related to criminal investigations. That’s not how we operate. That’s not the culture of the RCMP.”
According to another part of Arseneault’s statement, read out in court by Ertel, Coons had questioned Ortis’s team and suggested it was “really secretive” and “borderline wrong.”
Coons said Ertel was taking a comment from a statement unfamiliar to him.
“I would say that the context probably that’s been stated is that there was always a discussion, uncertainty — and still to this day rests in my mind uncertainty — about the ability of law enforcement to use intelligence information in criminal investigations,” he said.
“At the time, these were not settled matters and I questioned whether or not that could actually happen.”
Ertel said another colleague at the NICC, intelligence analyst Michael Vladars, suggested in a statement there was an adversarial relationship at times between the two branches in their dealings with then-commissioner Bob Paulson.
“Whose information was better, who gave him more value,” said Ertel, citing Vladars’ comments. “Some type of competition where the commissioner was assessing whose information was better.”
Coons said he wouldn’t characterize the relationship that way.
“To be quite frank with you, I was obviously familiar with the commissioner and what have you. But you know, the commissioner was not a big part of our thought process,” he said.
Arsenault and Vladars have not testified in the Ontario Superior Court trial. Their statements were not entered as exhibits.
Ortis expected to testify
Ortis is expected to testify during the trial.
Speaking to reporters outside of the courtroom, Ertel suggested the defence’s case will look at the pressures the OR was under.
“They had a very unique role. And I think we’ll hear that maybe they weren’t well received by some of the other people in the RCMP,” he said.
“The case is all about authority, who was in charge, who was in a position to give authority. Those are themes. What the threats to Canada and the world were that were posed, the urgency of the situation, the failure of other attempts by the RCMP to solve these problems. And the scenario that Mr. Ortis found himself in as the director of the OR when these events arose.”
When asked if the case will hear from someone who will vouch that Ortis had authority, Ertel simply said, “Stay tuned.”
Unit had to operate in ‘a no-fail’ environment
According to a job description shared as part of an agreed statement of fact, as director, Ortis was expected to provide “situational awareness intelligence” to “support a strategic or tactical response by the RCMP.”
“Given the perspective of imminent national security threats, the unit must evolve in a no-fail operational environment that demands that its outputs lead to significant outcomes,” says the description.
Ortis was appointed director of operations research within RCMP National Security in 2013. He was later promoted to director general of the National Intelligence Coordination Centre in 2016, a position he held until his arrest in 2019.
The court also heard Friday from Nisrine Slaymane, director of information and communication technology security at the RCMP.
She described the security measures in place on the use of technology. She said it would not be RCMP policy for someone to bring foreign signals intelligence home with them.
According to the agreed statement of facts, investigators seized numerous devices from Ortis’s home after his arrest. They also found a Tails (The Amnesic Incognito Live System) — essentially an encrypted USB key — and officers were able to partially decrypt it. On the key was a folder called “The Project,” which contained much of the evidence being presented in court.
Ortis, 51, is accused of sharing special operational information without authority with three people: Vincent Ramos, Salim Henareh and Muhammad Ashraf. He also faces one count of attempting to share special operational information with Farzam Mehdizadeh.
RCMP intelligence reports entered into evidence during the trial show the RCMP was investigating those three men and their money services businesses for potential links to Altaf Khanani, who was suspected of laundering money for terrorists.
Ramos was the head of a British Columbia-based company that was accused of selling encrypted phones to criminals, including the Khanani network and drug cartels.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC’s Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at email@example.com