OTTAWA — A lawyer for Cameron Jay Ortis, a former RCMP intelligence official accused of leaking classified material, says Ortis was acting largely on secret information passed to him by a foreign agency.
Lawyer Mark Ertel told a jury in Ontario Superior Court on Thursday that Ortis would testify about what he did and why he did it.
"He protected Canada from serious and imminent threats," Ertel said.
But he cautioned that Ortis would be limited in what he could say, as he has a problem that defendants in other criminal cases do not face.
"His actions were in large part a result of secret information communicated to him by a foreign agency," Ertel said.
"And he's going to be forbidden from telling you what the information was or what the foreign agency was. So he's defending himself with one hand tied behind his back."
Wearing a dark suit and tie, Ortis, 51, sat at a table in the courtroom on Thursday, his foot tapping rapidly at one point as he watched the proceeding unfold.
Following Ertel's remarks, reporters and the general public were excluded from the courtroom for Ortis's appearance in the witness box. Transcripts of his testimony, with possible redactions, are to be made available later.
The Crown alleges that Ortis anonymously sent classified material in 2015 to people who were of investigative interest to the national police force.
Ortis has pleaded not guilty to violating the Security of Information Act by allegedly revealing secrets to three individuals and attempting to do so in a fourth instance.
The Crown has tried to make the case that Ortis lacked authority to disclose classified material and that he was not doing so as part of some sort of undercover operation.
In 2013, Ortis became director of the RCMP's Operations Research group, which compiled and developed classified material on terror cells, transnational criminal networks, cybercrime actors and commercial espionage.
Colleagues who worked with Ortis in the intelligence unit, which had access to highly sensitive information, told the court he never spoke of contacting targets of a criminal investigation.
Former RCMP assistant commissioner Todd Shean, who was a direct supervisor of Ortis, became emotional during recent testimony, saying the alleged disclosures could have put the lives of undercover operators at risk.
"I'm shaking, because, it's just, the irreparable harm that I expect this has done to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and our reputation amongst our partners," Shean said.
"This has been a long time in the making, and I expect it's going to take many more years before we will be that trusted partner again."
Ertel said on Thursday that Ortis has a compelling story to tell.
"And within the limits that he faces, he'll tell you everything he's allowed to say and subject himself to cross-examination," Ertel said.
He told jury members they would be satisfied Ortis is "no enemy of Canada and did not act at any time without authority or lose sight of his mission."
The arrest of Ortis in September 2019 rattled the RCMP, which has since taken several steps to bolster internal security.
The path to Ortis began in 2018 when the RCMP analyzed the contents of a laptop computer owned by Vincent Ramos, chief executive officer of Phantom Secure Communications, who had been arrested in the United States.
An RCMP effort known as Project Saturation revealed that members of criminal organizations were known to use Phantom Secure's encrypted communication devices.
Ramos would later plead guilty to using his Phantom Secure devices to help facilitate the distribution of cocaine and other illicit drugs to countries including Canada.
A retired RCMP investigator has told the court he found an email to Ramos from an unknown sender with portions of 10 documents, including mention of material from the federal anti-money laundering agency.
The sender would later offer to provide Ramos with the full documents in exchange for $20,000.
A statement of agreed facts in the case says information sent anonymously to Ramos, Salim Henareh and Muhammad Ashraf — as well as material intended for Farzam Mehdizadeh — was "special operational information" within the meaning of the Security of Information Act.
The statement says that from at least 2014, the RCMP and multiple enforcement and intelligence agencies of Canada's close allies were investigating money laundering activities conducted by various entities associated with Altaf Khanani, a Dubai-based money service businesses owner.
Henareh and his companies Persepolis International and Rosco Trading, Ashraf and his company Finmark Financial, and Farzam Mehdizadeh and his firm Aria Exchange were subjects of the investigation in Canada.
In trying to tie Ortis to illegal disclosures of information, the Crown has pointed to materials found on a memory key seized during a search of his downtown Ottawa home upon his arrest.
An RCMP examination of Ortis's finances did not turn up unknown sources of income or evidence that he received money linked to the offers of information.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2023.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press