China's Shadow War on Canada

By Sam Cooper

 

Is transnational organized crime a threat to state security in the digital age?

— Cameron Ortis

 

 

IN SEPTEMBER 2019, when CSIS agents scoured the Ottawa condo of Cameron Ortis, a civilian RCMP intelligence official, they found dozens of encrypted computers. They also found evidence that Ortis was planning to leak Five Eyes operational plans to Altaf Khanani’s network. According to the U.S. government, Khanani is is suspected of being a major financier of terrorism, part of a network that moves guns and drugs and bombs around the world in conjunction with Hezbollah and various transnational cartels and state-sponsored criminals.

So when the RCMP finally announced charges against Ortis, there was a burst of relief, and then fury, among his colleagues. They called Ortis the Golden Boy, or the Prince, as in Machiavelli. They felt he had been coddled by RCMP brass — the old boy’s club.

Ortis had the charisma of a cool professor with his tortoiseshell glasses. He looked a bit like Jeremy Irons, but shorter and more muscular. In 2007 the RCMP had recruited him straight out of grad school at UBC. He rocketed up to lead a secretive intelligence unit called Operational Results or Operations Research (OR), depending on who you asked. OR was staffed with about ten civilian analysts just like Ortis. And they pushed the envelope of Canada’s justice system by using “high side” intel shared among the Five Eyes.

This was classified information collected from sensitive human sources and intercepted signals. The dangerously exposed human sources could include undercover agents inside Hezbollah or even politically connected tycoons in Mainland China. This Five Eyes intel could rarely be used in Canadian criminal prosecutions. But RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson believed Ortis and his cadre of brilliant academics in OR were skillfully leveraging high side intelligence to boost the RCMP to the FBI’s level.

And in 2016, Paulson and his deputies promoted Ortis, making him director general of the RCMP’s national intelligence centre. He was the first civilian ever to become the force’s gatekeeper for Canada’s crown jewel secrets.

Ortis’ national intelligence unit was producing reports on cocaine coming from Latin America, transnational gangs based in Macau and China, and weapons trafficking worldwide. Sources said Ortis was a leader on complex investigations focused on China and Iran early in his career. Lots of evidence suggests Ortis was drawn to global money launderers and cybercriminals. But to my mind, exactly who Ortis was working for is a moot point. The cyberworld that he mastered is where criminals and spies, and state actors converge to trade secrets.

And I found it incredibly illuminating that Ortis’ 2006 UBC graduate thesis explored national security vulnerabilities caused by “compromised nodes” and the “digital black market” that connects gangsters and hackers in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, China.

Lines like this one jumped off the page: “Is transnational organized crime a threat to state security in the digital age?” Ortis wrote. “This chapter introduces that concept of a nexus between two previously distinct, hidden networks: systems intruders and transnational organized crime.”

Ironically, Ortis now looks like a compromised node himself. But when did he lose his way? I know that investigators have looked back to his studies at UBC. And to me, his graduate research in Asia seems an excellent place to start. Ortis speaks Mandarin. He was introduced to state sources in Mainland China through his academic research, the thesis says. And his academic network at the university frequently displays a pro-Beijing message. For example, in 2020, the Globe and Mail reported that UBC Prof. Paul Evans is seen by Huawei Canada as one of the “key opinion leaders” who could help prevent the Chinese telecom giant from being banned from Canada 5G networks. And I found that Evans was Ortis’ mentor for the “compromised nodes” thesis, which they jointly published.

Evans told me that Ortis had worked with experts in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China. “It was a complex and strikingly original thesis that went far beyond the normal bounds of political science and involved conversations with dozens of people in the broad fields of interational [sic] relations,” Evans wrote to me. “Beyond that, I have nothing more to say in a situation where his case is before the courts.”

Ultimately, Ortis’ expertise on Chinese transnational crime and cyber-criminals propelled him to the pinnacle of Canadian intelligence, despite his having had no operational experience. And here was something that my sources found very strange.

 

ONE OF THE U.S. State Department’s top national security concerns is Chi Lop Tse, the Canadian Big Circle Boy who may have become the world’s top narco before Australian federal police nailed Tse in the Netherlands.

Tse was preparing to fly to Toronto. Australian police apparently felt more confident asking the Dutch to extradite him than Canada. Even though Chi Lop Tse left Canada after 2010, his network in Toronto is very strong. Four of the Sam Gor crime syndicate’s commanders are Canadian citizens. That fact alone shows how important Canada has become for Chinese transnational gangs. And Tse’s associates in Markham appear to have relationships with some staff working in Canadian banks, several RCMP sources informed me. The allegation made sense, because surveillance records from the E-Pirate investigation, launched in 2015, showed me that Jin and his associates were observed dealing with various bank staff in Richmond. And an extremely knowledgeable financial crimes investigator told me organized crime almost always cultivates banking staff to obtain instruments such as bank drafts and to complete useful transactions.

So around 2014, the RCMP was informed by Australian federal police that Tse and “The Company” were running a global crystal meth import and export hub in Markham, right under the nose of Canadian police forces. This was embarrassing for Ottawa, to say the least.

And units that Ortis influenced started surveillance on Chi Lop Tse’s deputies in Markham and produced intelligence reports for the Five Eyes. Here is an interesting aside. I’m told undercovers set up at a location in Markham were very surprised to see a senior Canadian elected official in the vicinity of a Chi Lop Tse group meeting. But that undercover observation didn’t lead to any deeper investigation.

And here’s another mind-bender. Some Canadian and Australian federal police got together in 2015. They concluded that Chi Lop Tse’s Toronto network and Paul Jin’s Richmond network, were of course working together. This all made perfect sense. Chi Lop Tse and Kwok Chung Tam are old comrades.

And think back to Vancouver police officer Pat Fogarty’s stunning wiretap investigations. In the late ’90s Fogarty was listening to Triad commanders calling the shots in Macau’s bloody war for control of casino king Stanley Ho’s baccarat tables. The Big Circle Boys and the 14K banded together against the Water Room Triad. But these drug cartels were ultimately controlled by Chinese state bosses, who put an end to Triad conflicts.

Many of the Chinese loan sharks and high-rollers identified in Australian intelligence were also identified in Canadian criminal intelligence. Paul Jin recruited his whales in Macau. And Chi Lop Tse bragged of controlling Macau. Kwok Chung Tam was one of Jin’s bosses. So it didn’t take a rocket scientist to surmise connectivity between Chi Lop Tse’s operation in eastern Canada and Paul King Jin’s network on the west coast.

But when Ortis took over the RCMP’s national intelligence centre in 2016, suddenly his team had a very different opinion than experts in Australian and Canadian anti-gang units. Ortis’ unit wasn’t interested in Chi Lop Tse’s connection to E-Pirate. And the RCMP’s nascent probe of Sam Gor in Markham fizzled out.

Another crazy occurrence. Abruptly, in 2016, RCMP intelligence-gathering priorities changed. Chinese transnational crime was downgraded as a priority. There are some in the RCMP who wonder if Ortis influenced these strange decisions. And it’s not baseless speculation.

There is solid evidence, according to a source, suggesting that Ortis blocked a potential RCMP investigation of EncroChat — an encryptions technology business with links to Vancouver that serviced transnational narcos in the United Kingdom and across Europe, especially.

And that’s just one organized crime-focused file. What follows is a truly scary aspect of the Ortis case.

 

SOURCES WITH knowledge of national security investigations told me Ortis quickly became RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson’s most trusted advisor on national security and sensitive political investigations. Ortis and Paulson were so close, sources said, that Paulson treated Ortis almost like an oracle. One source described the influence as “Rasputin-like.”

There is a story that seems to highlight the relationship. The claim is that Paulson insisted on bringing Ortis into what was supposed to be a one-on-one meeting in Washington. The alleged meeting — prior to 2014 — was with FBI director Robert Mueller. The FBI would not comment. Paulson also would not comment on my source information for this book. Previously, he acknowledged he was close to Ortis. But he insisted he was never aware of red flags or internal complaints about Ortis before Paulson retired in 2017.

But if Ortis had such influence on Paulson’s strategic and tactical priorities, the intangible damage to Canada will be difficult to assess.

A U.S. source familiar with the RCMP’s decision-making from 2008 to 2016 said in hindsight, the Ortis case isn’t a complete shock.

“There was a lingering feeling, is there an obstruction at the top in Ottawa?” he said. “Overall, operationally, we kind of felt there was something in Canada. Like our ops were vulnerable to something like this. So it’s really interesting how intelligence analysts like Ortis develop so much power to decide who gets targeted and who doesn’t. And it ends up becoming a political thing.”

As one Canadian policing executive said, it’s terrifying that Ortis had more access to national security secrets than anyone else in the RCMP. It’s even more terrifying that he could have enabled hostile state actors to operate in Canada or leaked high side intel to their political masters in China, Russia or Iran.

And even outside his alleged Rasputin-like hold on Paulson, Ortis had enough power himself. Numerous data points from documents and sources say that Ortis was protected from oversight as complaints about his leadership mounted.

So, could foreign entities be looking for more than information from someone like Ortis? Could they misdirect Canada’s intelligence apparatus by having an agent of influence at the controls?

I know some leaders in the RCMP are asking these questions.

Because the damage to units that Ortis controlled appears to be deep and lasting.

 

Sam Cooper has covered corruption, organized crime, foreign influence, and security and intelligence for Global News since 2018. Previously he worked for The Province and The Sun in Vancouver. This article is excerpted from his new book, Wilful Blindness: How a Network of Narcos, Tycoons and CCP Agents Infiltrated the West, published in May by Optimum Publishing International.


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