ANALYSIS: Foreign Interference Inquiry: What the Declassified Documents Have Revealed

by EditorL

Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue delivers opening remarks at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, in Ottawa on Jan. 30, 2024. (Screen shot)

After its first week of hearings, questions linger as to whether the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference will be able to deliver on part of its mandate to “maximize” the amount of information it can reveal to Canadians.

Although Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said in testimony before the commission that he expects officials will make a “very robust, good faith effort” to be transparent, the attorney general has raised concerns about the laborious redaction process involved in releasing classified documents.

And if the documents released so far to the commission for public disclosure are any indication, chances are state secrets will be tightly protected.

The first phase of the inquiry, which heard from experts and current and former security officials, was dedicated to determining what mechanisms could be used to improve the release process of classified documents and help the commission fulfill its transparency mandate.

The commission, which has access to unredacted information, also discussed a batch of 13 documents it sent the government for redactions and public release to observe how it would manage the process.

Based on those documents, it appears Canadians will not see any explosive hard intel on foreign meddling.

Questions can be asked whether the inquiry will even be able to go beyond what Global News and The Globe and Mail have reported from national security leaks over multiple months. Those reports led to the public inquiry being called.

One example came by the way of the commission receiving a redacted copy of a July 2021 assessment by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which discusses foreign interference by Beijing.

When the Globe reported on the leaked document on May 1, 2023, it noted that China’s Ministry of State Security had “taken specific actions to target Canadian MPs.”

This information does not appear in the redacted version provided to the public inquiry in the batch of test documents, even though it’s been made public by the Globe.
The July 2021 CSIS assessment, titled “PRC Foreign Interference in Canada: A Critical National Security Threat,” came back partly redacted with only non-specific information disclosed.
It calls the People’s Republic of China (PRC) the “foremost perpetrator” of foreign interference in Canada, targeting all levels of government and different sectors of civil society, such as media and community groups.

CSIS Documents

Ten of the 13 documents the commission sent to the government for redactions originated from CSIS. It’s a mix of product types. Some are “intelligence reports” containing raw information. Others are products containing intelligence that’s been analyzed and assessed. The vast majority came back fully redacted, with even the dates or part of the title or security classification blacked out.

The names or titles of the addressees on some of the documents have also been redacted, suggesting that there are concerns about revealing which government figure was supposed to have received it and at which specific time.

One CSIS intelligence report on China was sent to “GAC-DM; PCO-[redacted] CSE-Chief; PS-DM,” indicating a controlled distribution of very sensitive information to a shortlist of high officials. It was sent to a deputy minister (DM) at Global Affairs Canada (GAC), an unknown official at the Privy Council Office (PCO), the chief of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), and the deputy minister of Public Safety (PS).
Another CSIS intelligence report on China was apparently so sensitive that it’s marked “DELIVERED BY HAND BY CSIS” and “TOP SECRET//CEO.”

The first addressee(s) is redacted, with others being National Security and Intelligence Advisor (NSIA) Jody Thomas, Michael MacDonald at the Privy Council Office, and Public Safety Deputy Minister Shawn Tupper.

The date and content are fully redacted, but Mr. Tupper was appointed to this position on Oct. 17, 2022.
This was three weeks before Global News published its first report based on national security leaks. The outlet reported on Nov. 7, 2022, that intelligence officials had warned the Liberal government that China was interfering in elections and had funded a network of at least 11 federal candidates running in the 2019 contest.

The 17-page hand-delivered CSIS intelligence report provided to top officials was in the form of raw intelligence, as indicated by the type of format being used.

In testimony before the House of Commons national defence committee a month later, on Dec. 8, 2022, Ms. Thomas said that “we’ve not seen money going to 11 candidates, period.” She added that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been “thoroughly briefed” on the matter.
Another type of document released by CSIS is a “National Security Brief.” One such document was sent to the NSIA and the deputy minister of public safety in February 2020. It’s entirely redacted except for a text box on the United Front Work Department, the Chinese regime’s primary foreign interference tool, and the subheadings “Background” and “Relationship with PRC Threat Actors.”

The latter subheading suggests that the report discusses an entity that’s itself not an agent of Beijing but has links to Chinese regime agents.

Another released CSIS product is a placemat, or one-page graphic, titled “PRC Interference [redacted].” It’s also undated and mostly redacted. One text box indicates that “CSIS is investigating PRC Fl network that is active in Canada.”

Below the graphic are what appear to be measures being taken by CSIS to address foreign interference. “Provide security briefings to other MPs and their staff to increase awareness of foreign interference,” it says.

Under “other government stakeholders” it says that political parties should “revisit internal policies with a view of addressing foreign interference.”

One problematic Liberal Party nomination process was brought to light by national security leaks and reviewed by former special rapporteur David Johnston. He said in his May 2023 report, which is based on intelligence and interviews with top officials, that “irregularities were observed” in MP Han Dong’s 2019 nomination in Ontario’s Don Valley North riding.

“There is well-grounded suspicion that the irregularities were tied to the PRC Consulate in Toronto, with whom Mr. Dong maintains relationships,” wrote Mr. Johnston, adding that he found no evidence that Mr. Dong was aware of the irregularities or the consulate’s potential involvement in his nomination.

Mr. Johnston also said Mr. Trudeau was briefed about the matter but concluded there was no basis to reject Mr. Dong’s candidacy based on the intelligence available to him at the time.

‘Deceptively Influence’

Aside from CSIS documents, two reports from the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force and one from the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol were released to the commission. Both entities were created by the Liberal government to protect election integrity.

One of the SITE documents shows that the government knew in real time during the 2021 federal election that Beijing was likely interfering in order to undermine the Conservative Party. The public was not warned.

“The PRC continues to be focused on influencing and potentially interfering with Canadian democratic processes, having identified Canadian politicians considered anti-PRC, sanctioned a sitting MP [redacted],” says the report dated Sept. 13, 2021. Canadians went to the polls one week later.

It adds that Global Affairs Canada’s Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) to detect foreign meddling had observed a possible Chinese Communist Party “information operation that aims to discourage voters from voting” for the Tories.

This issue was raised by Conservative MP Michael Chong in February last year, who quoted from an RRM report.
The other SITE report, dated Dec. 17, 2021, after the 2021 election, indicates that the PRC “sought to clandestinely and deceptively influence Canada’s 2021 federal election.” It names as targets the Conservative Party, then-Tory leader Erin O’Toole, and “particularly former Steveston-Richmond East candidate Kenny Chiu.”

Mr. Chiu has said a number of times that a disinformation campaign wielded by Beijing during the election cost him his seat in his B.C. riding.

“The 2021 federal election appears to have been of significant interest to PRC threat-related actors,” adds the report.

The government has maintained that the integrity of the 2019 and 2021 elections wasn’t compromised.

Justice Marie-Josée Hogue, head of the inquiry, said she expects the next round of hearings to take place in March. Her first report is due in May.

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