Canada has arrested one of its top intelligence officers and charged him with attempting to sell national secrets.
Cameron Ortis, 47, the civilian director of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) intelligence unit, was charged last week with three counts of breaching the Security Information Act and two criminal code offenses.
The security charges, one dating back to 2015, allege that Ortis tried to sell secrets to an unnamed “foreign entity.”
In hunting for that “entity,” the hounds of speculation have gone speeding off in two very different directions.
One trail points at the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with which Canada is in the middle of a major crisis in relations.
The other involves a Canadian icon, the BlackBerry smartphone, and its upgrading by a shadowy company in Vancouver in order to provide unhackable encrypted communications for drug cartel bosses in Mexico, the United States, and Australia. This was allegedly done without the knowledge of BlackBerry.
Of the two trails, the second – the drug trafficker’s private network – has a stronger scent. But until the Canadian authorities give a clearer picture of their allegations against Ortis both are highly speculative.
The story has the potential to be a huge embarrassment for the Canadian security establishment, especially in its intelligence relationship with its “Five Eyes” partners, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
With his “Top Secret” clearance, Ortis had access not only to the files of Canada’s 20 intelligence-gathering agencies, but also to much of the traffic among the Five Eyes partners.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, campaigning for an election on October 21, and the Commissioner of the RCMP, Brenda Lucki, tried on Tuesday to get ahead of speculation that Canada’s trustworthiness as an intelligence partner has been damaged.
Trudeau said Canada’s security and intelligence allies are being kept fully informed. “We are also working with them to reassure them, but we want to ensure that everyone understands that we are taking this situation very seriously.”
RCMP Commissioner Lucki confirmed in her press conference that Ortis “had access to intelligence coming from our allies both domestically and internationally. We assure you that mitigation strategies are being put in place as required.”
“At this point, the cooperation with our allies is not at all compromised,” she said.
Keeping in mind that Ortis has not yet been tried, and remains innocent, the degree of embarrassment for Canada depends on what he did and with whom. It is not even clear at this point whether he was arrested before or after having committed the alleged crimes.
For several sound reasons, the first speculation in Canadian media, backed with quotes from intelligence sources, pointed the finger at the People’s Republic of China.
Canada’s relations with Beijing are in crisis over the detention of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, on an extradition warrant issued by the US Department of Justice in May last year. Beijing has retaliated by kidnapping and holding hostage two Canadians, diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor.
Scores of agents
Beijing has scores of Ministry of State Security and United Front Work Department agents active in Canada, mostly keeping tabs on immigrant Chinese dissidents or hunting for useful technology to buy or steal.
Seeking to coerce a senior Canadian officer with knowledge of Ottawa’s counter-intelligence operations would be a natural move.
And Ortis has a background in East Asian affairs and, according to his Linkedin profile, speaks Mandarin.
Ortis earned his PhD at the University of British Columbia in 2006, where his doctoral thesis on aspects of Internet security threats was overseen by two eminent professors, Paul Evans and Brian Job. Both men have played major roles in the development and sustaining of Canada’s relationships with China and Asia.
The two professors have made brief statements saying nothing in their dealings with Ortis led them to imagine he might get involved in activities that could lead to spying charges.
Early media reports in the US after Ortis’ arrest speculated that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had alerted Canadian authorities after receiving information from Xu Yangun, a Ministry of State Security spy. He was arrested in Belgium last year and extradited to the US in October.
A more compelling story has been broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), quoting sources at the Communication Security Establishment, Canada’s signals intelligence agency.
The CBC story said a 2018 email had been intercepted in which Ortis wrote to a man named Vincent Ramos: “I have information that I am confident you will find very valuable.”
Advice on encryption?
Ramos, who was born in Winnipeg, was sentenced by a San Diego court in May to nine years in prison for “leading a criminal enterprise that facilitated the transnational importation and distribution of narcotics through the sale of encrypted communications devices and services.”
Ramos was arrested in March 2018, in Bellingham, just across the US border from the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, where he ran a company called Phantom Secure Communications, which he founded in 2008.
Phantom served a small but very profitable niche market of drug traffickers, who needed totally secure methods of communications that could not be hacked by law enforcement agencies.
Ramos provided BlackBerry smartphones that had been adapted so they could only be used to send and receive encrypted emails through private servers in Hong Kong and Panama that were not able to be hacked. New customers had to be recommended by existing clients and the phones were also primed to destroy all the material they contained if they fell into the hands of the police.
It was a good business. The evidence in Ramos’ case, in which he pleaded guilty, was that he and his associates sold around 20,000 of the doctored BlackBerrys with subscriptions of $US4,000 a month.
The little company was said to have been pulling in around $90 million a year.
Clients included the notorious Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, but about 10,000 of the phones were sold to drug traffickers in Australia.
It was in Australia that things began to unravel for Ramos and Phantom. In 2016 an Australian Federal Police agent got hold of one of the Phantom phones without it destroying its records as it was meant to do.
Using this phone the Australians communicated with a Los Angeles drug dealer and arranged for 10 kilograms of cocaine to be shipped to Australia. That set off a chain of arrests and court cases in the US and Australia that finally gathered in Ramos early last year.
And in his case there was one chilling piece of evidence. Phantom didn’t disable all the function of the BlackBerrys other than email. They left the phones’ GPS functioning.
Ramos told police this was because the main vulnerability of the system was a drug gang member who turned police informant. Leaving the GPS working enabled cartel leaders to “locate and kill the informant.”