‘Not aware of any spike in foreign interference’ official tells MPs, says intelligence not full picture
While officials are acutely aware of China’s efforts to interfere in Canadian elections, top federal officials say the outcomes of last two federal elections were not compromised by foreign actors, nor were there spikes in interference during those campaigns.
“I continue to believe… that there is a baseline amount of foreign interference going on every day in Canada that we need to be mindful of, but that I was not aware of any spike in foreign interference during either the 2019 or 2021 election campaigns, and I stand by that,” deputy minister of foreign affairs David Morrison told MPs on Thursday.
Morrison is part of the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol (CEIPP)—an independent panel of public servants that monitored the last two elections with the mandate of informing Canadians if the integrity of the vote was compromised.
Pointing to the absence of an alert from CEIPP in either the 2019 or 2021 campaigns, the director of Canada’s spy agency said he agrees that the “very high threshold” that would prompt going public about interference attempts, was not reached.
“Based on my information and my experience, for what it’s worth… I would say that I concur with that conclusion,” said CSIS Director David Vigneault.
“CSIS takes all allegations of foreign interference very seriously, and uses its authorities under the CSIS Act to investigate, provide advice to government in where appropriate, and take measures to reduce the threat.”
These officials’ comments seeking to drive home that Canadians should have full confidence in the elections’ outcomes come in the midst of marathon testimony at PROC from top national security, elections, and foreign intelligence officials as part of a months-long study into alleged of interference.
That study has ramped up in recent weeks amid months of media reports, including those citing unnamed CSIS sources, raising questions around alleged “sophisticated” attempts to meddle, including claims that specific MPs or candidates were targeted by China, in an effort to re-elect Liberals. China’s embassy in Ottawa has called the allegations of interference attempts “purely baseless and defamatory.”
Despite all that’s been reported, the RCMP has yet to confirm any investigations into the interference allegations, and none of the officials have confirmed the reporting, speaking frankly about the risks posed to Canada’s national security by those leaking the information. Vigneault confirmed an investigating into the leaks is underway, and noted there are other ways for people to express “discontent” with a government.
He also voiced support for the suggestion Canada creates a foreign agent registry similar to those enacted in the U.S. and Australia, saying that while it wouldn’t solve all foreign meddling problems, it could be a “useful” tool. During the hearing it was stated that Canada did not expel any Chinese diplomats between 2019 and 2022.
On Thursday, RCMP’s deputy commissioner of federal policing, Michael Duheme, said the federal police force has not received any “actionable intelligence” that would lead to an investigation in regards to the last election, nor have any charges been laid.
Various officials sought to drive home the point on Thursday that there is a difference between intelligence and evidence, one being information received and the other being information that law enforcement can act on, and that taking intelligence “out of context,” or without the appropriate caveats, “can be very pernicious.”
MPs were warned that intelligence that CSIS or other national security agencies collect “rarely paints a full or concrete or actionable picture” and “almost always comes heavily caveated and qualified.”
“The current debate that is going on social media, in the mainstream press, and in this committee is… Canadians would be better served if the debate took into account what intelligence is and what intelligence is not. And that misreading or taking out of context an intel report can lead to divisiveness, which in itself, plays into the hands of some of our adversaries,” Morrison said.
COMMISSIONER REVIEWING INTERFERENCE COMPLAINTS
Elections Canada Chief Electoral Officer Stephane Perrault, right, and Commissioner of Canada Elections Caroline Simard speaks with Bardish Chagger, Chair of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs before a meeting on Parliament hill, in Ottawa, Thursday, March 2, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Earlier in Thursday’s hearing, Canada’s elections commissioner said that her office is in the process of conducting a “rigorous and thorough review” of every complaint and piece of information regarding allegations of foreign interference during the last two federal elections.
“I am seized with the importance of this issue, as well as the need to reassure Canadians under these exceptional circumstances,” said Commissioner of Canada Elections Caroline Simard, who is responsible for enforcing federal elections laws, and has the power to lay Criminal Code charges.
“This review is ongoing as I speak, to determine whether there’s any tangible evidence of wrongdoing under the Canada Elections Act,” she said.
Simard told MPs that this work is being conducted “impartially and independently from the government.” The outcome will allow her to determine whether the allegations meet the threshold of breaching Canada’s elections laws, but would not result in drawing conclusions around the “validity of election results overall or in a particular riding.”
The commissioner said that complaints have come into her office both prior to, and in light of reports from The Globe and Mail and Global News. Overall the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections has received 158 complaints regarding 10 situations of potential elections violations, and 16 complaints regarding 13 situations in the 2021 campaign.
Simard was not definitive on how many of these complaints were in regards to alleged Beijing election interference, but said overall foreign interference complaints are a small part of the thousands of complaints her office receives.
“For reasons of confidentiality, I will not be able to provide further details regarding the ongoing review, complaints, or any or any other information received by my office. As with any investigative body, confidentiality is essential to protect the presumption of innocence and of course to avoid compromising the integrity of our work,” Simard said, imploring anyone with information about potential wrongdoing under the Canada Elections Act to contact her office.
The testimony from top intelligence officials who said there was no spike in interference — despite the recent media reports and the commissioner noting hundreds of complaints — was met with incredulity by Conservative MP and committee member Michael Cooper, who accused public servants of citing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “talking points.”
“That seems incredible that you would say that there was no spike… I have some difficulty believing that and it really begs the question whether this [election monitoring] panel really was interested in getting to the bottom of foreign interference and respond in real time… because it just doesn’t add up,” Cooper said.
Appearing alongside Simard, Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault said that while he encourages Canadians to treat the reported allegations of election meddling “with caution,” the news has raised questions of great concern for Canadian democracy and national sovereignty.
“Foreign interference is not a partisan issue. It can target elected and public officials at all levels of government, across parties… Canadians also have a right to know that every effort is deployed to tackle the threat of foreign interference,” Perrault said.
“While it is not possible to draw a straight line between foreign influence and the outcome of a particular election, acts of foreign interference attack the fairness of the electoral process and must be addressed to protect our democracy.”
Late Thursday, MPs on the committee passed a non-binding NDP motion calling for a national public inquiry to be struck to further examine the issue of foreign interference, with the power to compel national security documents and call key government and political figures to testify, while the work of PROC continues.
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