As Cameron Ortis climbed the ranks of the RCMP, there was no disputing the depth of his intelligence or his ability to get to the nub of complex matters.
He was among a select cadre of “golden boys” — civilians tapped by the force to help tackle national security and other highly sensitive files. So impressed was former commissioner Bob Paulson, sources say, that he had floated the idea to the senior executive committee on multiple occasions of elevating them to senior police officer or “regular member” status through an expedited program.
The idea did not sit well with that committee.
In fact, some members of the force, while not disputing the importance of “civilianization” and bringing in people with diverse skills and perspectives, had cast a wary eye on the activities of Ortis and his colleagues, concerned about all the information they had access to, what they were doing with it and whether there was sufficient oversight.
“The sense was they were off doing their thing without too much supervision, almost carte blanche to go off and do whatever. They seemed to be operating outside of the normal scope, the normal structure,” one former senior official told the National Post.
“They came across as cowboys.”
The question of oversight is now front and centre after Ortis, 47, was accused last month of violating Canada’s secrecy laws dating back to 2015. He was charged under the Security of Information Act with communicating special operational information and gathering information in order to share it with an unnamed foreign entity or terrorist group. He also faces charges under the Criminal Code, including breach of trust.
The investigation into Ortis, which started last year, was an offshoot of an FBI probe into the activities of Vincent Ramos, a B.C. man who was later convicted of facilitating the flow of drugs around the world by supplying high-level traffickers with encrypted communications devices.
An American source familiar with that investigation confirmed to the Post that a search of one of Ramos’s electronic devices revealed that an RCMP employee had tried to sell information to Ramos.
None of the allegations against Ortis, who remains in custody, has been proven in court. A two-day bail hearing is set to begin on Thursday.
Outside of the criminal proceedings, questions have been raised about whether Ortis had undergone the requisite screening every five years for employees with top-secret security clearances. An internal 2016 audit found a “significant” backlog in security clearance updates across the force.
“I don’t think anyone is going to question (Ortis) is a really smart dude with lots of skill sets. The character issues though, what is going on there?” said another retired RCMP official.
“You need to look at the security clearance process and the maintenance of security clearances… Are there things around that that was a gap?”
The RCMP did not respond to an invitation to comment on the backlog issue.
The Post spoke to more than half-a-dozen people who had occupied senior positions within the force to get a fuller portrait of Ortis’s rise within the RCMP. Most agreed to speak on the condition they not be identified by name because of the unfolding court case and sensitive nature of the allegations.
After completing his PhD at UBC, Ortis had a postdoctoral appointment on campus at the Centre of International Relations. During this time, Margaret Purdy, a national security consultant with a distinguished career in public service that included roles at the Defence Department, CSIS and the RCMP, was an honorary research associate at the UBC centre.
Two sources say it was Purdy who recommended Ortis to the RCMP. (Purdy could not be reached for comment.)
I don’t think anyone is going to question (Ortis) is a really smart dude
In October 2006, Ortis attended a conference of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies in Ottawa. Senior RCMP members scheduled a lunch to meet him.
“We thought, yup, he’s got technical skills that would be of use to national security,” recalled Anna Gray-Henschel, a former director-general in the RCMP’s national security criminal investigations branch.
“I was in charge of the strategic side. Based on his skills, we thought he’d be a match for the operational side.”
Ortis was hired in 2007. On one of his first days he was taken to the executive wing at headquarters for introductions. He appeared to be an “ideal candidate” and a “real find,” one former official recalled.
Two sources confirm that Ortis started his career assessing threats to Canada’s critical infrastructure, such as subways and oil pipelines. The force at the time was ramping up its outreach to the private sector to enhance the sharing of information regarding threats and had developed a new Suspicious Incident Reporting system.
During his first year-and-a-half in Ottawa, Ortis, who was raised in B.C., rented a furnished basement apartment in the home of Gray-Henschel and her partner, who was a senior member in a different branch of the RCMP.
Gray-Henschel recalled Ortis doing a lot of travelling and working long hours.
“We had a rule that he couldn’t have anyone over because (we) were in sensitive positions. … He never violated that,” she said.
Sources, however, say that Ortis, who liked to wear expensive clothes and eat out a lot, seemed to have money issues — selling a used car, for example, to help pay down debt.
At one point, Ortis transferred from critical infrastructure to the operations research branch. Staff there were responsible for identifying patterns and trends that could be useful to investigators.
This particular unit was “very locked down” and had access to all manner of classified information, sources say.
“They were kind of almost like your really, really secretive group, tucked away — really competent, highly educated folks,” said one retired RCMP official.
This was a particularly fraught time for the RCMP’s national security teams. They were in the midst of prosecuting members of the “Toronto 18” terror group that had plotted to launch a series of attacks across southern Ontario. An inquiry a couple of years earlier had concluded that faulty intelligence information supplied by the RCMP to the United States led to the deportation of Canadian Maher Arar to Syria, where he was tortured. The RCMP introduced new safeguards to prevent future incidents.
And yet there was still a concern, a former senior RCMP official said, about whether there were sufficient checks and balances over people working in operations research and whether their activities could be defensible in court.
“They wanted access to everything and anything but wouldn’t necessarily indicate why,” the source said.
They were kind of almost like your really, really secretive group
Another source said that perhaps because of their civilian status, “I think there was maybe concern there was too much deference given to them without considering the evidentiary law enforcement aspect of that… They did have a lot of secret access.”
But Angus Smith, who previously worked in national security as a senior strategic analyst, said he never witnessed any negligence around security.
“There can be a perception that they’re trying to wall themselves off as some kind of an elite (group). But it is about maintaining operational security and the integrity of the information,” he said.
Following a complete restructuring of the force’s federal policing arm, a new National Intelligence Coordination Centre was formed in 2013. According to RCMP publications, the centre serves as a “hub” for intelligence gathered from domestic police, RCMP liaison officers and analysts deployed abroad, and international partners. The centre uses that information to identify threats, emerging trends and gaps in knowledge.
In 2016, the centre came under media scrutiny after researchers obtained, through an access-to-information request, records that showed the centre was engaged in profiling Indigenous rights activists who were deemed to be potential “threats.” The same records showed that the centre had produced reports and briefs on a range of topics, such as cocaine trafficking from Latin America, organized crime in Macau, China, virtual currencies and criminal use of firearms.
That same year, Ortis was promoted to director-general of the centre by Paulson, then the commissioner. The promotion caught some off guard. Normally, such a promotion would be discussed by the senior executive committee, but it wasn’t in this case, a source said.
“I read it on the bulletin.”
Paulson, who is now retired, says the committee was advised of the promotion.
But the promotion wasn’t a complete surprise either. Over the years, when Paulson was director-general and assistant commissioner in the national security branch, Ortis and Paulson had been seen in each other’s company — on smoke breaks, working out and drinking in the RCMP “mess” hall.
“Bob appreciated intellect,” a former senior RCMP official said.
Two sources said Paulson had repeatedly pitched the idea to the senior executive committee of creating a “direct entry officer program” — allowing highly regarded civilians to become high-ranking uniformed officers without having to start as a constable.
“It wasn’t just a one-off, he was pretty persistent, but when he received resistance he didn’t push it,” one source said.
There was a fear that such a move could create resentment among those who’d put in 15 or 20 years or more to get to the commissioned ranks. Morale was already low. There was also a feeling that the idea needed to be more thought through and defensible.
At one point, another source said, Paulson suggested fast-tracking civilian members like Ortis through the RCMP training academy in several weeks, instead of the usual six months.
“The focus was always on his guys,” the source said. “If these guys hadn’t been around then he may not have had this discussion.”
Paulson confirms he had tasked human resources with developing a “conversion training standard” for a whole troop of senior civilians, including Ortis. The idea, he said, was to modernize the force by introducing “highly credentialed individuals” into the officer corps and to try to overcome some of the “class distinction and prejudice” held by many regular members toward their civilian colleagues. But “in the end the resistance was just too intense.”
All of the former law enforcement officials who spoke to the Post shared the view that however the Ortis case turns out, and despite concerns about oversight, the RCMP must not retrench when it comes to hiring civilians with special expertise and different perspectives from regular officers.
“One of the things that happens is they drink the Kool-Aid when they join, they start thinking the same way. What you need is … those different perspectives,” one source said, citing the increasing complexity of crime, particularly cyber crime.
“You don’t need a gun and a badge … you want the guy or gal with the hoodie in the basement that wants to do good.”
With files from Christie Blatchford