RCMP used covert search and surveillance powers before arresting high-level intelligence official
In the RCMP’s search for a leak that ultimately led to the arrest of top intelligence official Cameron Ortis last year, investigators first obtained a general warrant 15 months earlier.
The Fifth Estate has learned that the RCMP obtained more than two dozen court-ordered warrants and authorizations in the months prior to and after the arrest of Ortis that gave them broad powers, including covert surveillance and the ability to intercept communications.
Ortis was arrested on Sept. 12, 2019. As director general of the RCMP’s National Intelligence Co-ordination Centre (NICC) for more than three years, he was one of the highest-ranking civilian members in Canada’s federal police force, with access to numerous sensitive national and multinational investigations.
Ortis faces eight counts of violating the Security of Information Act and two criminal counts. The Crown alleges that he violated the Security of Information Act by obtaining guarded information that he intended to leak, as well as leaking special operational information.
A list of 27 warrants and authorizations was recently disclosed to The Fifth Estate by the Crown’s office in Ottawa. All of the information submitted by the RCMP to the courts in Ontario and British Columbia to obtain the warrants and authorizations has been sealed.
But the list reveals the RCMP were engaged in a deep internal investigation for months.
“Police used almost every significant search and surveillance power in the Criminal Code at some point during this investigation,” Steven Penney, a law professor at the University of Alberta, told The Fifth Estate after reviewing the warrant list.
The first “general warrant” was obtained by the RCMP from the Ontario Court of Justice on June 5, 2018. That warrant is issued for a wide variety of techniques, including video surveillance, covert entry and the placement of surveillance devices.
Fifteen months later, on Sept. 10, 2019, just two days before Ortis was arrested, the RCMP obtained a tracking warrant from the Ontario Court of Justice, which would have allowed them to monitor the movements of a target through an electronic device.
That same day, the RCMP also obtained a “transmission of data recorder warrant” from the court that gave them the authority to collect metadata from a target’s device, including which device sent a message, to whom, when, how much data was contained in a message and the length of the communication.
Also that day, the Mounties obtained “authorization to intercept communications” from the court, which gave them the green light to monitor and record real-time private communications, oral or text-based.
It is unknown whose communications the RCMP were intercepting.
When asked about the warrants and authorizations, Ortis’s Ottawa lawyer, Ian Carter, told The Fifth Estate “the matter is before the court so I don’t have any comment.”
Even after Ortis’s arrest, the RCMP continued to obtain warrants and authorizations related to the investigation, including an “authorization to intercept communications” on Oct. 1, 2019, and a further “transmission data recorder warrant” from the Ontario Superior Court.
It is unknown whose device the RCMP was authorized to intercept last October.
But in a civil suit filed this past August against the RCMP, three analysts who worked under Ortis at the NICC reveal they were also investigated as possible leakers.
Their lawsuit accuses Ortis of workplace harassment and abuse and RCMP management of failing to address his alleged pattern of bad behaviour.
The three NICC colleagues say in the suit that they were informed that “the intelligence that Mr. Ortis had stolen and sold was largely the work product of the NICC employees he had targeted” and that “the work product transmitted by Mr. Ortis to third parties contains information which identifies the plaintiffs personally.”
The suit further alleged that the analysts “were subject to an investigation into whether they were complicit in Mr. Ortis’s actions, which caused them distress and further isolated them in the workplace.”
“While ultimately cleared, they were provided no information about the level of investigation to which they were subjected, including whether they were subject to any monitoring and whether any monitoring was ongoing,” the suit said.
“The plaintiffs have received no reassurances or transparency around the degree to which the RCMP may have been or may still be intruding on their privacy in order to ‘clear’ them.”
The federal attorney general has yet to file a statement of defence in the matter.
Carter, Ortis’s lawyer, said he had no comment on the civil matter while the litigation is ongoing.
“My understanding is that he’s not named personally,” Carter said, when asked if Ortis would be filing a statement of defence. “The lawsuit is against the RCMP.”
None of the allegations in the civil suit has been proven in court.
In a news conference five days after Ortis’s arrest, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said that the investigation into the leak began in 2018 when “the RCMP was supporting an FBI investigation” and the force “uncovered possible internal corruption.”
The internal investigation began after the March 2018 arrest of Vancouver businessman Vincent Ramos in the United States. Law enforcement in Canada, the U.S. and Australia alleged that Ramos and his company, Phantom Secure, sold encrypted cellphones to criminal organizations.
Reviewing a seized computer after Ramos’s arrest in 2018, the RCMP discovered that someone had reached out to Ramos and offered to provide him with internal information. The Mounties quietly started an investigation, dubbed Project Ace, to find the source of the leak.
Ramos later pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering and is now serving a nine-year sentence in a U.S. federal prison.
The RCMP would not comment on the Phantom Secure investigation.
“For operational reasons and the privacy of our undercover operators, we must decline your request for an interview,” the Mounties responded via email.
“The RCMP will not stop in the pursuit of criminal activity related to hardened secure communications companies, such as Phantom Secure, who facilitate organized crime.”
Court documents filed in U.S. District Court, Southern District of California, reveal that undercover RCMP agents were targeting Phantom Secure over a six-month period in 2015.
The indictment in Canada against Ortis charges that between Feb. 1, 2015, and May 31, 2015, he “did, in the city of Ottawa, Ontario intentionally and without authority, communicate special operational information to V.R.”
Ortis stayed in job
For several months, through 2018 and 2019, while the internal investigation was ongoing, Ortis stayed in his job and according to the charges against him, from September 2018 to September 2019, he allegedly accessed, obtained and retained guarded information. He also allegedly possessed a “device apparatus or software useful for concealing the content of information or for surreptitiously communicating, obtaining or retaining information.”
The RCMP declined to comment on why Ortis was allowed to stay in his senior position while they investigated him.
Ortis was appointed director general of the NICC in April 2016. He started as a civilian analyst at the RCMP in 2007 after completing a PhD at the University of British Columbia. He previously held positions in the RCMP’s Operations Research and National Security Criminal Investigations Directorate.
Ortis was granted bail on Oct. 22, 2019, after a two-day hearing in the Ontario Court of Justice in Ottawa that was covered by a court-ordered publication ban.
Following a hearing in Ontario Superior Court, Ortis’s bail was revoked on Nov. 8, 2019, and he was taken back into custody, where he remains awaiting trial. A trial date has not been set.
“I’m still waiting for full disclosure from the Crown. I don’t have it yet,” Carter said. “It’s taking a long time.”