Offer of Secrets for Sale Led to Arrest of a Canadian ‘Clark Kent’

OTTAWA — The trail that led investigators to one of Canada’s elite cybercrime experts, a quiet analyst in the national police, began with an email.

Secrets for sale, it said, to a man who sold phones to cartels.

Investigators traced the email to Cameron Ortis, a veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, according to an American law-enforcement official. Last month, Canadian prosecutors accused Mr. Ortis of passing on or offering secrets in 2015, and then gathering information in 2018, with the intent to do it again.

Under Canadian law, Mr. Ortis was “a person permanently bound to secrecy,” and the charges against him have stunned his colleagues, unnerved the Mounties and undermined trust between intelligence agencies across Canada, Britain and the United States.

“The news of his arrest has shaken many people throughout the R.C.M.P.,” Brenda Lucki, the police commissioner, told a news conference last week. But she suggested that even the Mounties lacked details, saying, “Until we know what we’re dealing with specifically, our risk assessment is fluid.”

Mr. Ortis, 47, has not yet entered a plea. He made a brief court appearance in Ottawa by video on Friday and dates for his bail hearing will be set next week.

The Mounties have not said who they believe was the intended recipient of information cited in the charges. But the path to Mr. Ortis came out of the case of a businessman convicted of helping criminals in the United States, according to the American law-enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not directly involved in Mr. Ortis’s case.

The tip emerged from an American investigation into another Canadian, Vincent Ramos, who was arrested last year in Washington State. Mr. Ramos was accused of using his company, Phantom Secure, to sell thousands of encrypted cellphones, supposedly impervious to wiretaps and other surveillance techniques, to drug cartels and other criminal groups.

While searching his emails, investigators found one offering to sell secrets that law-enforcement agencies had about Mr. Ramos and his clients, the American official said. The email contained a sample of the information for sale — two or three pages of the Mounties’ file on Mr. Ramos — and it was traced to Mr. Ortis, the official said.

Experts said it was unclear why an intelligence analyst of his stature — the director general of a special cybercrime unit, with a high-level security clearance — might try to make a deal with an equipment supplier like Mr. Ramos. And those who knew Mr. Ortis said they were shocked to learn of the charges against him.

“The behavior he’s alleged to have engaged in would go against everything we ever saw of him,” said Chris Parry, a journalist who met Mr. Ortis while he was a graduate student. “This guy worked 15 years in the service of the country when he could easily have taken well-paid corporate positions at any time.”

But Mr. Parry also noted how private he was and compared him to Superman’s alter ego, an unassuming journalist with a secret life. “Clark Kent is the best way to describe him,” he said. “In looks and physique, but also in terms of secrecy and genuine dedication to work for the public good.”

He appeared to have no social media accounts aside from a LinkedIn profile that says he speaks Mandarin and was an “adviser” to the Canadian government. He said so little about his professional life, Mr. Parry said, that he assumed Mr. Ortis worked for Canada’s version of the C.I.A., the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service.

Mr. Ortis joined the government in 2007, when the intelligence division of the Mounties was expanding to confront cybercrime and terrorism. He arrived with a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia — he wrote a dissertation on the misuse of the internet by criminals in Asia, as well as potential ways countries could combat it — and quickly impressed those he met.

Angus Smith, who retired last year as the Mounties’ senior intelligence adviser, said that when Mr. Ortis arrived at the agency, it was immediately clear that he was an exceptional recruit.

“I was always impressed by his intellect,” he said, as well as “by the level of rigor that he would bring to conversations about whatever the issue of the day happened to be.”

Like many, if not most, intelligence analysts with the Mounties, Mr. Smith and Mr. Ortis were classified as civilians. Though they did not carry guns, have badges or wear uniforms, they were active participants in investigations.

From the beginning of his time with the Mounties, Mr. Ortis had a view of Canada’s most sensitive secrets, said Wesley Wark, a visiting research professor at the University of Ottawa who studies intelligence and national security. Then in 2014, he said, the Mounties’ cybercrime team was moved into a larger unit, which by then was under Mr. Ortis’s direction. Simultaneously, its budget and role were greatly expanded.

The result was that the Mounties became the leading agency in cybercrime efforts in Canada, he said, “and sitting of the center of it all was Cameron Ortis.”

For security reasons, analysts did not exchange details with each other about cases, Mr. Smith said. He did not know much about what cases Mr. Ortis handled, he said.

The Mounties have declined to comment on specific questions about the case and little information has yet been entered in court.

Mr. Ramos, the businessman, pleaded guilty last October. He told investigators that he never followed up on the email or discovered who sent it, the American official said.

“I don’t think there is a profile for somebody to become corrupt or to get involved in various forms of malfeasance or to become a traitor,” said Mr. Smith, the former intelligence adviser.

“I would never describe him as a disgruntled employee,” he said of Mr. Ortis. “He always seemed like someone who was very proud to be part of our team and very proud of the work he did. He was a very, very hard worker.”