Ortis, 47, was arrested last week and charged with offenses including obtaining information to give to a foreign entity or terrorist group, communicating or confirming “special operational information” and breach of trust.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, in her first public comments on the case, said Monday that the “unsettling” allegations had “shaken” many in Canada’s federal police agency.
“We are aware of the potential risk to agency operations of our partners in Canada and abroad, and we thank them for their continued collaboration,” Lucki said in a statement. She said “mitigation strategies are being put in place as required.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asked about the case while campaigning Monday in Waterloo, Ontario, said “this is something that the responsible authorities are engaged with at the highest levels, including with our allies.”
Officials have disclosed few details about the case that could have wide-ranging implications for Canada and its allies. The country is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network with the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
Without more details about what information Ortis is accused of trying to leak, who the recipients might have been or whether he was successful, the potential damage is difficult to assess. But Canada is a net consumer of intelligence — it receives more from its allies than it provides — and will probably come under pressure now to ensure that measures are put in place to prevent future breaches.
“The Five Eyes and really the international community are fairly well versed in dealing with this kind of breach,” said Jessica Davis, a former analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada’s national security agency. “At the same time, the RCMP and Canada need to reassure our allies that steps have been taken to ensure that this kind of thing does not happen again.”
Lucki said Ortis joined the RCMP in 2007 and worked in operations research and national security criminal investigations. That gave him “access to information the Canadian intelligence community possessed” and “to intelligence coming from our allies both domestically and internationally.”
According to his LinkedIn profile, Ortis earned a doctorate in international relations at the University of British Columbia in 2006 and speaks Mandarin Chinese. His doctoral thesis was “Bowing to Quirinus: Compromised Nodes and Cyber Security in East Asia.”
The charges stem from activities alleged to have occurred between 2015 and 2019.
Davis said Ortis was “very well known” within Canada’s small intelligence and security community and would often act as a liaison between agencies. She said she was surprised to learn of the charges.
“His access was relatively unparalleled within the RCMP,” she said, and would have included special operations material. That includes “the most sensitive of secrets,” she said, such as human sources, methods of collection and information safeguarding procedures.
The Security of Information Act, the law under which Ortis was charged, was established at the outset of World War II and updated after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It addresses espionage and the protection of government secrets.
The law was used to convict Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Paul Delisle, a navy officer who pleaded guilty in 2012 to selling secrets to the Russian military. Russia paid him $71,000 over nearly five years for secrets that he smuggled out on a memory stick he kept in his pocket. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was granted full parole this year.
Stephanie Carvin, a professor of international relations at Ottawa’s Carleton University, said U.S. officials were displeased with Canada following the Delisle case. But they soon found themselves embroiled in a crisis of their own when Edward Snowden leaked details of National Security Agency and Five Eyes surveillance programs.
“The potential here for damage is far worse than the Delisle case,” Carvin said. “But we don’t know yet.”
In the meantime, she said, national security officials are left with uncomfortable questions: “Should we be better at this? Why was this person not caught? This person would have had to have gone through multiple security clearances, including when he was promoted, so how was this missed?”
Ortis is due to appear Friday in court in Ottawa. Prosecutor John MacFarlane said last week that the government will ask that his request for bail be denied.