The theft of classified information by a senior intelligence officer could be “devastating” to Canada’s national security, the country’s spy service has warned, as concern over the security breach continues to grow.
In a series of internal documents obtained by the CBC, Canada’s intelligence service outlined fears that details of the country’s spycraft could have been comprised after the theft of sensitive information by Cameron Ortis, 47, a director general with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s intelligence unit.
“This type of information is among the most highly protected of national security assets, by any government standard and goes to the heart of Canada’s sovereignty and security,” the documents read.
A preliminary assessment by the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s cybersecurity agency, concluded: “Damage caused by the release of these reports and intelligence is HIGH [sic] and potentially devastating in that it would cause grave injury to Canada’s national interests.”
Ortis, director of the RCMP’s intelligence coordination unit, faces seven charges over the theft of highly classified information with the intent of selling it to a foreign entity or terrorist organization in what experts have called the largest security breach in Canadian history.
The breach has sent tremors through the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network which also includes the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Britain, which will also be concerned that their own secretive intelligence-gathering methods might also be compromised.
On Tuesday, Canada’s prime minister said that Canada was working to reassure its allies. “We want to ensure that everyone understands that we are taking this situation very seriously,” said Justin Trudeau.
One former intelligence analyst for the Australian government, said that while Five Eyes allies would be anxious to know exactly what information was compromised, the foundation of the Five Eyes alliance was not under threat.
“While it’s very serious, and countries will be concerned, I don’t think it’s going to undermine the Five Eyes arrangements,” said Daniel Flitton, of the Lowy Institute thinktank. “Ultimately, what this reflects is that the weakest part of any security system is the people that you let have access.”
Flitton said the Five Eyes partners would be “looking for reassurance” from Canada over exactly what information has been compromised.
The head of the RCMP, Brenda Lucki, stressed on Monday that the force was working to minimize damage.
“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. We assure you that mitigation strategies are being put in place as required,” she said in a statement on Monday.
A clearer picture has also emerged of the internal RCMP investigation – dubbed Project Ace – that led police to arrest Ortis, the highest-ranking civilian in the organization.
The search for the mole began after US police arrested Canadian citizen Vincent Ramos, the CEO of a Vancouver company which sold modified Blackberry devices to organized crime rings, including the Sinaloa drug cartel. According to the US department of justice, Ramos made more than $80m between 2008 and 2018.
Ramos was charged with conspiring to distribute narcotics and racketeering and after pleading guilty in October, was sentenced to nine years in prison.
By then, investigators had discovered internal RCMP documents on Ramos’s laptop, prompting the separate inquiry to find the source of the leak. By May, digital evidence led Canadian police to Ortis, a longtime academic who oversaw and coordinated the relationship between the country’s intelligence service and the country’s police force.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Ortis spent nearly a decade at the University of British Columbia, researching cybersecurity and developing an interest in Asia, before becoming an an adviser to the Canadian government in 2007.
Ortis faces five charges under Canada’s Security of Information Act, as well as the two under the Criminal Code, all in relation to alleged incidents that occurred between 2015 and 2019. If convicted, he could spend 14 years in prison.
Ortis appeared by video link in an Ottawa court on 13 September is set to appear again in court on Friday to determine bail eligibility.