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Intel breakdowns and ‘black holes’: How foreign interference became a political flashpoint

Parliament is set to rise for the summer in a few weeks — but the contentious debate over foreign interference is likely to continue.

Despite facing calls to step aside, David Johnston — tasked by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau back in March with looking into allegations that China tried to meddle in the past two federal elections — has said he plans to continue his work.

Johnston will be holding a series of public hearings over the summer. He’ll face MPs’ questions when he appears before a House committee Tuesday morning.

The allegations

Citing unnamed national security sources, the Globe and Mail and Global News have reported that Beijing has deployed operations meant to influence and interfere in Canadian politics — including the 2019 and 2021 elections.

Those operations allegedly have included attempts to intimidate and influence members of Parliament and fund political candidates, and the operation of so-called “police stations” across Canada meant to intimidate dissidents and members of Chinese diaspora communities.

The Globe also reported that a Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) document stated that Beijing attempted to orchestrate the election of a Liberal minority government in 2021.

A man in a jacket, shirt and tie stands in a hallway.
Liberal MP Han Dong speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill on March 21, 2023. (Chris Rands/CBC)

In March, Global published a story alleging that former Liberal MP Han Dong — who is currently sitting as an Independent — advised a senior Chinese diplomat in February 2021 that Beijing should hold off on freeing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians being held by China at the time. Dong has refuted those claims and is suing Global for $15 million.

The Globe, citing a top secret document from 2021, also reported last month that the Chinese government was targeting a Canadian MP. An unnamed security source reportedly told the Globe that Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei was allegedly working on efforts to target Conservative MP Michael Chong’s family in China.

In his first report, released last month, Johnston disputed Global’s reporting on Dong and the Globe’s report on Beijing working to ensure a Liberal minority in 2021. He said those media reports misconstrued top-secret intelligence because it lacked a broader context. Johnston also said that additional context could not be shared publicly.

Johnston reported he did find evidence that Chinese officials contemplated taking unspecified action against Chong and sought to build a profile on him, although there’s no evidence they threatened either Chong or his family.

The MPs affected

CSIS has briefed two other MPs about foreign interference.

Both former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and NDP MP Jenny Kwan said last week that CSIS has informed them they’ve been targeted by Beijing.

O’Toole told the House of Commons that CSIS informed him that he has been an ongoing target of a Chinese government campaign of misinformation and “voter suppression” that covered the last federal election campaign.

WATCH | O’Toole rises in House on foreign interference

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‘Our Parliamentary democracy must be defended’: O’Toole rises in House on foreign interference

7 days ago

Duration 0:54

Conservative MP Erin O’Toole spoke about the briefing he received from CSIS after he was told he was the target of foreign interference during the last election.

Kwan told reporters Monday that CSIS told her she is an “evergreen” target of Beijing. Both O’Toole and Kwan said China’s government is singling them out over their vocal support for democracy in Hong Kong and for religious and cultural minorities in China.

Former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu has blamed Beijing’s alleged election meddling for losing his seat in the 2021 election. He claims he was the target of propaganda and disinformation on WeChat — a Chinese-owned messaging app — that falsely claimed his private members’ bill would unfairly target the Chinese community.

Chiu’s bill actually proposed to establish a foreign agent registry that would require non-elected individuals to declare when they receive money from foreign governments.

Chiu was critical of Johnston’s first report. He said it didn’t consult diaspora communities affected by foreign interference — something Johnston has promised to do during his public hearings taking place this summer.

But some Chinese Canadians are calling for immediate action rather than more hearings.

WATCH | ‘The time for action is now,’ advocate says

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Chinese Canadians say they don’t need public hearings to tell them what they already know

4 days ago

Duration 8:10

Cherie Wong, Executive Director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong talks to Power and Politics about her organization’s newest report detailing foreign election interference in Canada.

“We can’t wait for a 12 to 16 month process to tell us something that we already know,” Cherie Wong, executive director of the Alliance Canada Hong Kong (ACHK), told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics last week.

Wong said members of the Chinese-Canadian community feel they have been talking about foreign interference for years without government action. She pointed out that her organization released reports on foreign interference in 2020, 2021 and this year.

“We don’t need another person to tell us there’s foreign interference. We don’t need another person to study the tactics. We have studied it and we have presented it in this beautiful report,” Wong told CBC’s David Cochrane.

Johnston’s first report

In his report, Johnston did conclude that foreign governments are attempting to influence political candidates and voters, and that more needs to be done to combat these attempts. But the former governor general ultimately advised against calling a formal public inquiry to investigate foreign interference, triggering outrage among opposition parties.

Johnston suggested that a formal public inquiry would not serve to investigate allegations of foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections because much of the classified information he has reviewed would need to remain secret.

While much of the public attention has been focused on Johnston’s decision not to call for an inquiry and his personal connections to the prime minister, he did flag issues with intelligence.

Specifically, Johnston criticized the way intelligence agencies, including CSIS and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), share intelligence with the federal government.

“The materials are disseminated, but no one keeps track of who specifically received or read them,” Johnston wrote in his report.  “This means there can be intelligence that is ‘sent’ to various consumers, but it does not always actually get consumed.”

Johnston said staff at the Prime Minister’s Office told him they’re given a large binder in a secure room to review secret material, with no ability to take notes for security reasons.

Jody Thomas, National Security and Intelligence Advisor waits to appear as a witness before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) investigating intimidation campaigns against the Member for Wellington - Halton Hills and other Members on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Thursday, June 1, 2023.
Jody Thomas, national security and intelligence adviser to the prime minister, waits to appear as a witness before the standing committee on procedure and House affairs (PROC) on June 1, 2023. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

Johnston said that binder covers a range of intelligence topics from around the world and no one tells PMO staff to concentrate on one topic or another. If staffers are away, he said, they may not see the binder that day.

Johnston said he also found evidence that Chinese officials contemplated taking unspecified action against Chong in 2021 and sought to build a profile on him. Testifying before a House committee last week, Trudeau’s national security adviser Jody Thomas said there has been a “breakdown” in how intelligence is shared in the government and used Chong’s case as an example.

Thomas said CSIS sent a memo in July 2021 to three deputy ministers across government, but the message effectively went into a “black hole.”

How much is Johnston being paid?

Johnston is receiving a per diem in the range of $1,400 to $1,600, according to the Order in Council that announced his appointment.

CBC also has reported that Johnston hired the crisis communications firm Navigator to support him and taxpayers are footing the bill.

What has the government done so far?

In 2017, the government set up the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), a bipartisan assembly of MPs and senators who are sworn to secrecy in order to receive top-secret briefings.

Trudeau has asked the committee to look into foreign interference. Their classified reports are sent to the prime minister before a redacted version is made public.

During a committee appearance last month, Chong called for NSICOP to be brought under the purview of Parliament so it can be answerable to the House, rather than the prime minister.

The government established the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol in 2019 to monitor and alert the public to credible threats to Canada’s elections. The team is a panel of top public servants tasked with determining whether incidents of interference meet the threshold for warning the public.

A report reviewing that task force’s work was released in February.  It said that interference didn’t affect the outcome of the 2021 vote. But it did recommend that the government lower the threshold for alerting the public to potential interference attempts.

The government also established the Security and Intelligence Threats (SITE) task force in 2019, a body consisting of representatives of Canada’s top security agencies. SITE has met regularly since 2019 and now meets on a monthly basis; its meeting become more frequent as elections draw near.

During his speech last week in the House, O’Toole criticized both task forces for failing to tell him he was a target.

A man in a suit, standing against a red backdrop, speaks into a microphone.
Zhao Wei was expelled from Canada after reportedly playing a role in attempts to gather information on MP Michael Chong’s family in Hong Kong in 2021. (Easy Media/Easyca.ca)

In the wake of the revelations about Chong, Trudeau said he’s told CSIS to share more information about potential threats to MPs. 

Last month, the government expelled Zhao Wei, the Chinese diplomat accused of targeting Chong and his family.

Recently, the RCMP said it has “shut down illegal police activity in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia” connected to so-called Chinese “police stations” — but it hasn’t said whether it has made any arrests.

The government is also planning to introduce legislation this year to establish a foreign agents registry.

Under a foreign agent registry, people who act on behalf of a foreign state to advance its goals would have to disclose their ties to the government employing them.

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