Home News PM never warned of Chinese election interference

PM never warned of Chinese election interference

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It can be a little difficult to keep tabs on the various investigations and reviews into foreign, particularly Chinese, interference in Canada’s elections.

Ottawa’s newest growth industry was largely precipitated by a series of highly classified intelligence leaks, first in The Globe and Mail and then in Global News, that described Chinese government attempts to interfere in the last two elections in an effort to return the Liberals to power, albeit as a minority government.

The first is a report from a panel of senior public servants that found that while China, Russia and Iran had attempted to disrupt the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, Their efforts failed.

Next, former Governor General David Johnston reviewed the evidence leading up to the leak. Johnston resigned before the inquiry was completed because the opposition argued his close ties to the Trudeau family meant his assessment would not be independent. But in a preliminary report, he concluded that foreign powers “had a role inNo doubt trying to influence the candidate and Canadian voters.” But Mr. Johnston added that after reviewing all of it, he found that “several leaks raised legitimate questions, but the results were misinterpreted by some media coverage, presumably because of a lack of this context.”

A committee of MPs authorized to review classified intelligence submitted its report on election interference to the government in late March. A review of the committee’s findings has not yet been made public.

A month ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reluctantly launched a public inquiry into the interference after repeated calls from the opposition. In the preliminary report it was stated The report noted there was no evidence that the two most recent elections were compromised. But it also said that “some Canadians now have less trust in Canada’s democratic process,” adding that “this is perhaps the greatest harm Canada has suffered from foreign interference.”

A redacted report released this week by an independent watchdog group examined the issue from a different angle. The National Security Intelligence Review Agency investigated how Canada’s spy agencies and government handled intelligence about Chinese election interference.

One of the startling findings was that much of the material never reached Mr. Trudeau or members of his cabinet.

The panel found several obstacles. The panel found that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) faced a dilemma within the agency.

“On the one hand, information about foreign interference in elections is a top government priority, and CSIS has adapted its collection apparatus to investigate political foreign interference,” the report said. “On the other hand, CSIS is also aware that collecting and disseminating intelligence about elections could itself be considered a form of electoral interference.”

But its reports are not always well received when it tries to bring material to the government’s attention. When CSIS published two overviews of Chinese election interference in 2021, the national security and intelligence adviser — a public, not political, position that changed hands several times that year — dismissed them as little more than “narratives of standard diplomatic activity,” the review found. The reports were not given to the prime minister or cabinet.

“What’s really shocking is that the reports we should have been reporting to the prime minister weren’t being reported to him,” Wesley Walker, who studies Canada’s intelligence system at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, told me. “I think it’s indicative of a huge problem with Canada’s intelligence system.”

Work said the situation arose in part because the agency has traditionally tried to pass on nearly everything it collects, rather than emphasizing analytical reporting. These little “tidbits” probably shouldn’t be passed on to politicians, but their proliferation also seems to hamper analytical or strategic reporting, he said.

“These kinds of strategic assessments are exactly how the British, Australians and Americans use intelligence,” he said. “But we don’t seem to be very good at it. It’s a problem that has to be addressed.”

He added that the responsibility for addressing the problem lay with the top brass of the public service, not the intelligence agencies.

The report released this week does not reveal exactly what China did or tried to do in the past two elections, but it does warn that “the intelligence does not prove that the activities described occurred or occurred in the manner suggested by intelligence sources.”

Mr. Walker noted that the judge presiding over the public inquiry, Marie-Josée Hogue, had been careful not to comment on the veracity of the leaked information. He said he did not expect that to change in the coming months.

“So we don’t know more and we may never know more,” he said.


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Born in Windsor, Ontario, educated in Toronto and now based in Ottawa, Ian Austin has covered Canadian news for The New York Times for more than 20 years. Follow him on Bluesky @ianausten.bsky.social


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