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CanadaWho is Cameron Ortis?: RCMP espionage suspect's journey from geeky teen to man of mystery

11:51  19 september  2019
11:51  19 september  2019 Source:   nationalpost.com

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Who is Cameron Ortis?: RCMP espionage suspect's journey from geeky teen to man of mystery © Handout Cameron Ortis in 2010.

When Cameron Ortis showed up at Uncle Bill’s Pub in Abbotsford, B.C., for his 10-year high school reunion, there were two things that stood out.

His hair was short — a drastic change from the flowing headbanger locks he sported in high school that some compared to Dee Snider of Twisted Sister. He was also circumspect about what he was doing for a living.

“He’s like a James Bond guy all of a sudden,” one former classmate recalled.

That mystique would carry through to his years at UBC where he threw himself into his PhD work. His research into cyber-security threats and transnational crime took him across East Asia, where he interviewed many players in the underground world of hacking. His frequent travel earned him the nickname “Spy Cam.”

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Far from a loner, Ortis had plenty of friends and would engage in chatter about politics over beers. There were things happening in the world though that also caused him great distress and weighed on him — and that’s what appears to have driven him into a life of public service.

So when news broke last week that Ortis, one of the most senior civilian intelligence officials at RCMP headquarters in Ottawa, had been accused of violating Canada’s secrecy laws, friends back home were shocked. It just didn’t compute. This was not the “Cam” they knew.

“He’s basically Clark Kent in looks and in his dedication to do the right thing,” said Chris Parry, who befriended Ortis in the 2000s.

“He’s the closest thing I know to a superhero.”

The full scope of the allegations against Ortis is still unclear, though some details have leaked out to various media outlets. They suggest that at one point, Ortis may have tried to sell sensitive information to people in organized crime. There’s also an allegation he gathered information in order to share it with a foreign entity or terrorist group. But it’s not clear who the intended recipient might have been.

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What is clear is that Ortis had access to a smorgasbord of some of the most sensitive files — not only belonging to Canada but to its closest allies. The fallout and potential damage this alleged breach could have on our international relationships remains to be seen.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki this week tried to put as positive a spin as she could on the situation, insisting that Canada’s partners were still sharing information with Canada. “At this point, the co-operation with our allies is not at all compromised,” she said.

Who is Cameron Ortis?: RCMP espionage suspect's journey from geeky teen to man of mystery © Chris Wattie/The Canadian Press RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki provides an update on the ongoing investigation, arrest and charges against Cameron Ortis at RCMP National Headquarters in Ottawa on Sept. 17, 2019.

Ortis’s former classmates at W.J. Mouat Secondary, where he graduated in 1990, say he grew up in a loving family. Online records show that his father, Dave Ortis, was a pastor at the local Emmanuel Mennonite Church during that time period.

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Lord Byron, who is said to have spoken Greek, French, Italian, German, Latin, and some Armenian, in addition There were the “ultimate geniuses . . . who excel at anything they do”; the Mezzofantis, “ who are Erard is a pensive man of fifty, still boyish-looking, with a gift for listening that he prizes in others.

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In Grade 10, Ortis was sort of a geeky kid with thick glasses. But in his senior years, former classmates recalled, he underwent a  transformation, growing his hair long.

“Girls loved him all of a sudden,” one of them said. (Most of the people interviewed for this story requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the allegations against him).

Not long after graduation, Ortis took a trip to eastern Africa as part of a humanitarian mission to deliver food. But Parry, a former Vancouver Sun journalist, says there’s an intriguing bit of detail that has formed part of the “accepted narrative” that has stayed with friends over the years.

According to the narrative, Ortis encountered one of his first brushes with danger after he and a companion were apparently kidnapped briefly by locals and then had to talk their way to safety. Parry said one of Ortis’s closest friends told him recently that Ortis was shaken up after that trip and friends surrounded him to try to keep him busy.

Who is Cameron Ortis?: RCMP espionage suspect's journey from geeky teen to man of mystery Cameron Ortis in his high school yearbook.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Ortis studied at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George from 1994 to 1998. He would later credit one of the professors there, Heather Smith, in his PhD dissertation for laying “the groundwork for a continuing interest and passion for the study of international relations.”

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During his studies, Ortis worked part-time as a bouncer at a local club. Years later, he shared stories of some of the hooligans he had to deal with, friends recalled.

Ortis completed a master’s degree at McMaster University in Hamilton. Online records show the title of his thesis was: “The Asian economic crisis: the changing nature of the relationship between domestic institutions and the international system.”

His interest in Asia continued at UBC, where he pursued graduate studies from 1999 through 2006. He cites in the opening pages of his PhD dissertation the reasons why he homed in on East Asia as the focus of his study into cyber intrusions. In part, it’s because of the region’s “growing reputation as a breeding ground for software piracy, crackers, virus writers and lackadaisical system administrators. The region plays host to the most advanced use of the Internet by organized crime groups.”

His field work over several years took him to eight cities in Asia where he interviewed government officials, engineers and members of the “hacker community.” He describes the “precarious undertaking” of pushing for face-to-face interviews to ensure that he was dealing with sophisticated crackers — or network intruders — and not low-level “script kiddies.”

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In his dissertation, he thanks the “anonymous individuals … who graciously agreed to speak” to him and thanks family and friends for their understanding during his “many absences.”

Parry, who was dating one of Ortis’s close friends, said Ortis was always the most “interesting cat” during group outings.

“He’s smarter than everybody — I don’t care who you put him in a room with,” Parry said.

The depth of Ortis’s computer knowledge made him highly sought after by big firms who were contracted to do work related to the Iraq war. But despite large money offers, Ortis turned them down, Parry said.

“He wanted to be on the undisputed side of good.”

A software engineer who helped Ortis analyze the data he’d compiled for his dissertation says he tried periodically to set up Ortis on blind dates. But Ortis’s laser focus on his research and travel meant relationships suffered, friends said.

When it came to Ortis’s views in the post 9/11 world, his opinions weren’t radical, but they were critical, friends said. And the way he expressed them went beyond superficialities like “Bush is a prick,” Parry said.

His approach to politics was not conservative versus liberal, but layered and took into account forces influencing politics and war beyond the ones covered in the press.

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At times though, the conversations became just too much, Parry said, and Ortis would have to step away, perhaps because he knew more than he wanted — or was able — to share.

“Just be happy you live where you live,” was a common refrain, Parry said.

Looking to take a mental health break from his PhD work one summer, Ortis sought out a construction job shovelling dirt. But, as the story goes, he didn’t get the job because he was overqualified.

Who is Cameron Ortis?: RCMP espionage suspect's journey from geeky teen to man of mystery © Handout Cameron Ortis’s approach to politics was not conservative versus liberal, but layered.

In 2007, Ortis started his career with the RCMP. This was during a period of aggressive recruitment of civilian analysts.

He spent several years in the National Security Criminal Investigations program, said Angus Smith, a retired senior intelligence advisor who worked in the same unit.

Smith worked as a strategic analyst, meaning he would take mostly open source information about events going on in the world, break it down and try to make sense of it. Ortis, on the other hand, was a tactical/operations analyst, meaning he would take information gleaned from investigations and try to make linkages.

Smith said he was struck by the depth of Ortis’s intelligence.

“I remember talking to him a couple of times about books people had written about crime and terrorism. I was always impressed with the academic rigor he brought to critiques of those books.”

Ortis also stayed in shape. His exercise regimen included regular laps around the track outside headquarters.

Allan Castle, former civilian member in charge of criminal intelligence analysis for RCMP’s E-Division in B.C., never worked with Ortis but remembers being copied on emails with other senior management and seeing Ortis’s name in the mix. It was clear he was on the fast-track.

“He was starting to orbit the throne.”

In 2013, the force underwent a major re-organization within its federal policing branch, leading to the creation of a new unit called the National Intelligence Coordination Centre.

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Ortis became its director-general with access to Canada’s intelligence files, as well as those of our allies.

He was very disciplined and “brilliant” at piecing things together, a senior source previously told Postmedia.

Some media reports have suggested he came across as arrogant. Others say he was confident but mostly unassuming and not one to seek attention.

Ortis’s contact with his B.C. friends diminished over time, but during one visit back home, Parry remembers Ortis joking that he was Jack Bauer’s boss, a reference to the fictional counter-terrorist agent in the popular TV show “24.”

UBC professor Paul Evans, who sat on Ortis’s dissertation committee and worked with Ortis to develop training programs for junior researchers from policy institutes in Asia, said they met socially on occasion.

“He did not discuss the details of his work (at the RCMP) and throughout was an exemplar of discretion and integrity in our interactions,” Evans said in an email.

His social-media presence was similarly sparse. On Facebook and LinkedIn, Ortis indicates only that he is an “advisor” for the government of Canada. His Facebook profile picture doesn’t show his face — just a simple black and white outline of a pedestrian.

Who is Cameron Ortis?: RCMP espionage suspect's journey from geeky teen to man of mystery © Lauren Foster-MacLeod/Handout via Reuters Cameron Ortis, director general with the RCMP’s intelligence unit, is shown in a sketch from his court hearing in Ottawa, Sept. 13, 2019.

According to federal prosecutors, Ortis ran afoul of the law back in 2015 when he allegedly communicated “special operational information.” It is also alleged that between September 2018 and this month, Ortis took steps to access information — including possessing a device or software useful for concealing or surreptitiously obtaining information — in order to share it with a foreign entity or terrorist organization.

Lucki, the commissioner, confirmed this week that the RCMP was first alerted abut possible “internal corruption” last year while the agency was supporting the FBI in an investigation. That probe, multiple media outlets have reported, centred on a Richmond, B.C., man, Vincent Ramos, who admitted to investigators that his company, Phantom Secure, helped to facilitate the flow of cocaine and other drugs around the world by supplying high-level traffickers with encrypted communications devices designed to thwart law enforcement.

Citing security documents, the CBC has reported that investigators believe Ortis reached out to Ramos by email to offer “valuable” information.

None of the allegations against Ortis have been proven in court.

Smith said news of the charges made him feel sad. If the alleged breach is extensive, one can’t help but wonder about all the long-term work that goes into criminal investigations. “Was it all for nothing?”

Castle said he and other senior managers “sweat a lot of blood” in the 2000s to get the RCMP to “civilianize” key roles and attract people from outside the core policing stream.

“If the allegations are proven, it would be frustrating that someone who perhaps had the highest-profile career as a civilian … has made these missteps,” he said.

“My concern would be this would be a setback to those efforts because they’re still important.’”

Parry says friends in B.C. are eager to hear Ortis’s side of things before speaking out. But of all the people he’s met in his life, Ortis is the least likely person he would suspect of stealing secrets and betraying Canada.

“He’s been offered all this money so many times to take a cushy job and he’s never taken it. Unless there’s some other element to it — blackmail or gambling — it doesn’t make sense… There’s got to be more to it.

Read more

Angry emails to PMO question RCMP competence in hunt for B.C. homicide suspects .
Canadians from coast to coast wrote to the Prime Minister’s Office during the hunt for the country’s two most wanted men this summer, some expressing outrage with how the search for Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod was handled.And more than a month after the bodies of the two men were found, a former RCMP deputy commissioner says there are still unanswered questions about the case.

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