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Spy scandal: Canada reassures allies over leak that may be linked to Australian drug syndicate

Canada is seeking to reassure its Five Eyes intelligence allies in the wake of a massive alleged spying leak that may be linked to an Australian drug-smuggling criminal syndicate.

Cameron Ortis, the director general of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s intelligence unit, has been charged over allegations he was trying to sell secrets to a foreign agent or terrorist group. He had access to classified information from Canada’s Five Eyes global allies, including Australia.

It has been reported Canadian authorities were led to Ortis’s alleged corruption while investigating Vincent Ramos, the Vancouver-based head of encrypted phone company Phantom Secure, used by drug-trafficking networks.

Ramos was a significant player in the Australian criminal underworld. The FBI estimated that of the 20,000 Phantom Secure devices in service around the world, 10,000 were used by Australian criminals.

In May, Ramos was jailed for nine years in a San Diego court for “leading a criminal enterprise that facilitated the transnational importation and distribution of narcotics through the sale of encrypted communication devices and services”.

As global intelligence agencies reeled from the revelation of Ortis’s arrest, the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, sought to reassure allies that Canada was treating the leak – said to be the largest of secret information in Canadian history – “very seriously”.

“We are in direct communications with our allies on security,” Trudeau said while campaigning for re-election.

“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.”

The commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Brenda Lucki, said Ortis had access to highly classified information by virtue of his senior position in the force.

“He also had access to intelligence coming from our allies both domestically and internationally. This level of access is appropriate given the positions he held.”

Lucki did not say which foreign organisations may have been exposed by Ortis, but Canada – alongside the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia – is part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance.

Ortis faces five charges under Canada’s Security of Information Act, as well as the two under the 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.

“We are aware of the potential risk to agency operations of our partners in Canada and abroad and we thank them for their continued collaboration,” Lucki said.

“We assure you that mitigation strategies are being put in place as required.”

Lucki would not confirm, but did not deny, reports Canadian authorities were led to Ortis while investigating Ramos, saying only the RCMP was working with the FBI in 2018 when they “came across certain documents that led us to believe that there might be some internal corruption”.

The RCMP, FBI, Australian federal police and other law enforcement agencies were involved in the probe of Ramos.

Ramos’s Phantom Secure phones – promoted as “uncrackable” – were used by criminal syndicates around the world. At his trial, a San Diego court was told US, Australian and Canadian authorities could not find one Phantom Secure customer who was not a criminal.

Ramos sold Phantom Secure devices to Owen Hanson, the kingpin who created the drug trafficking network ODOG, that shipped massive quantities of cocaine to Australia. Hanson was sentenced in 2017 to 21 years in prison.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, citing an assessment by Canada’s Communications Security Establishment cybersecurity agency, reported Ortis had allegedly reached out to Ramos.

“I have information that I am confident you will find very valuable,” one email from Ortis to Ramos allegedly said, according to the CSE documents.

Lucki conceded intelligence agencies around the world had been “shaken” by Ortis’s arrest and that the allegations were “extremely unsettling”.

Lucki said no Canadian ally had made any moves to limit or suspend intelligence-sharing with Canada but conceded there was “always the possibility” that partner agencies might lose trust in the RCMP.

“I would definitely imagine that there is concern amongst our Five Eyes community as well as within Canada,” she said.

Andrew Little, the minister responsible for the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service and Government Communications Security Bureau, said he had been made aware of the charges and that he “expected to be kept informed of developments in the ongoing investigation”.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Department of Home Affairs both refused to comment.

With AAP

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