Canada and its allies are scrambling to assess the damage inflicted by what experts believe could be the largest security breach in the country’s history after a senior federal intelligence official was arrested on charges of stealing covert information.
Following a lengthy investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted police, Cameron Ortis – the leader of the police force’s own intelligence unit – was charged on Friday with leaking or offering to share covert information.
On Monday, the RCMP commissioner, Brenda Lucki, acknowledged that Ortis, 47, had access to intelligence from both domestic and international allies.
Lucki did not say which foreign organizations may have been exposed by Ortis, but Canada – alongside the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia – is part of an intelligence-sharing alliance known as the Five Eyes, in which certain investigations have a large degree of overlap between countries.
“We are aware of the potential risk to agency operations of our partners in Canada,” Lucki said in a statement.
Security experts said that case could have a profound impact on Canada’s relationship with its allies.
Officials in other countries are probably “tremendously concerned” about the safety and integrity of their own investigations, said Stephanie Carvin, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University and former national security analyst for the federal government.
“If [Ortis] has been successful [in sharing information], the damage could be unprecedented in Canadian history,” she said. “But we don’t know yet. And that’s the thing that’s keeping a lot of people on edge: we know it could be bad. but how bad is it?”
Canada has fairly well-established protocols for dealing with intelligence breaches, said Jessica Davis, a former intelligence analyst for the Canadian government and head of Insight Threat Intelligence.
“We’ve had a lot of pretty intense breaches, particularly with the WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden and with Chelsea Manning,” she said. “I think that our allies are probably asking themselves, first of all, what information has been accessed and what steps are currently being taken to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
But the arrest has shocked security experts and rattled the broader federal government bureaucracy.
Among the main causes for concern is the potential exposure of sensitive secrets such as spycraft developed by Canada’s intelligence agency.
“Governments will lose court cases to protect their sources and methods. That’s how important this is. They would rather let a court case collapse than make that information public,” said Carvin.
Ortis faces five charges under Canada’s Security of Information Act, as well as the two under Criminal Code, all in relation to alleged incidents that occurred between 2015 and 2019.
The charges show that Ortis is accused of communicating covert operational information in 2015. He also faces charges of sharing secret information with a terrorist group or foreign entity – but it remains unclear if he had interacted with a state or individual.
Charges under the Security of Information Act – meant to prevent those who have access to classified information from leaking it – are extremely rare in Canada. If convicted, Ortis could face 14 years in federal prison.
Canadian media outlets have speculated that Ortis could have been communicating with Russian or Chinese state actors, or organized crime rings. But because so little is known about the scope and content of the information he is accused of accessing, both Carvin and Davis urged caution.
“It’s very early to try to out whoever you think might have been involved,” said Davis, calling speculation over Ortis past experiences or academic interests “very tenuous”.
Ortis appeared in an Ottawa court on Friday, but his case was adjourned until September 20th, in order for him to obtain legal counsel.