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Canada needs damage control and transparency from the government in spy case
Originally published in the Globe and Mail on 16 September 2019
This op-ed was originally published in the Globe and Mail on 16 September 2019.
Last week, Cameron Ortis, the civilian director-general of the RCMP National Intelligence Co-ordination Centre, was arrested and charged with offences under the Criminal Code of Canada and the Security of Information Act. His arrest, and the allegations made against him, have rocked the Canadian security and intelligence community, and now Canadian law enforcement and security agencies, as well as foreign ones, are in damage-control mode.
The consequences of this incident will be far-reaching and have repercussions for Canada’s security and intelligence community, both domestically and internationally.
Throughout the course of his career with the RCMP, Mr. Ortis had some of the broadest access possible, which included operational RCMP case files, Canadian intelligence and operational information from domestic law enforcement and security agencies, as well as intelligence provided by allies. Mr. Ortis would have also had access to information from Canadian companies – the RCMP (and other Canadian departments and agencies) have been working on enhancing public-private partnerships relating to cyber security and critical infrastructure, as well as the sharing of financial intelligence. Mr. Ortis likely had access to vulnerability information from Canadian companies and also financial intelligence from Canada’s financial sector.
What may have been of interest to him, and what he may or may not have taken, remains unknown.
The allegations he faces – betraying his country, as Mr. Ortis is alleged to have done by stealing and attempting to convey (or sell) this information – are not something that is done lightly. At the outset, this case looks like a classic insider threat – which is, in the spy world, the holy grail of espionage. But, if complicit, this does not necessarily mean that it was directed by a foreign country; insider threats can also emanate from people motivated by a wide variety of factors including grievance, ideology, compromise, extortion or ego.
Of course, money can also be a powerful motivator. Financial pressures can incentivize individuals to try to make money from whatever resources they have access to – and for those working in national security, one of those resources is vast amounts of intelligence.
Understanding the possible motivation will be a vital element of the already-underway damage assessment and in considering the steps that need to be taken to prevent this from happening. Current reports suggest that Mr. Ortis may not have actually provided his trove of intelligence to anyone; reporting by Global News speculates that he may have been still shopping for a buyer. But we can still talk about the damage done.
Principally, Canadian and foreign intelligence and security agencies as well as private-sector companies that have had dealings with the RCMP (or their partner agencies), are looking to determine what information may have been accessed. As part of the sweeping review now underway, as reported by The Globe and Mail on Monday, questions will also be asked about how the information may have been exfiltrated without (presumably) detection by the RCMP. The particular information allegedly taken, and prospective buyers, will also be of interest to those seeking to mitigate this damage.
Of course, managing the relationship with allies is going to be important. If reports that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation alerted the RCMP to this situation are credible, then the RCMP likely has some explaining to do to the FBI. They’ll need to figure out how, in the future, they might be able to detect this type of activity, why they didn’t see Mr. Ortis as a threat and will need to work to assure allies that they can, in fact, protect the information they share with us.
This is a critical piece of the puzzle because Canada is a net consumer of intelligence. We are valued members of the Five Eyes intelligence community along with Britain, New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. But make no mistake, we receive more than we give.
But there’s another bit of damage control that needs to be done. It’s within the Canadian security and intelligence community itself. The community is, rightly, reeling from this news. It’s a very small community, which means that the percentage of people who knew Mr. Ortis, or knew of him, is very high. And this is a community that operates principally on trust. This trust facilitates information exchange and operational partnerships that are critical to maintaining Canada’s national security.
The government of Canada needs to be forthcoming about what, in broad strokes, it is doing to mitigate the damage that Mr. Ortis’s alleged betrayal has caused. Those working in this very sensitive space need to know that steps are being taken to prevent this sort of activity, and if it does occur, that it is caught immediately, not allowed to fester for four years. Frankly, the rest of Canada (and our allies) need that same assurance.