Trudeau’s government slow response to foreign interference ‘a serious failure’: intelligence watchdog

The Liberal government has known since 2018 that it needed to take foreign interference more seriously but failed to recognize the gravity of the threat, says a damning new report from one of the country’s intelligence oversight bodies.

“The slow response to a known threat was a serious failure and one from which Canada may feel the consequences for years to come,” says a report from the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), tabled Monday in the House of Commons.

“The implications of this inaction include the undermining of the democratic rights and fundamental freedoms of Canadians, the integrity and credibility of Canada’s parliamentary process, and public trust in the policy decisions made by the government.”

In March 2023, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the committee, which is made up of MPs and senators from across the political spectrum, to investigate allegations of Chinese interference in Canada’s elections. He made the request after media reports, citing unnamed security sources and classified documents, accused China of interfering in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

Some of those reports also suggested that members of the Liberal government were aware of certain attempts at interference but didn’t act.

Monday’s report marks the third time NSICOP has reviewed the government’s response to threats of foreign interference since 2018 and Trudeau’s trip to India — a point members make known throughout their latest report.

“Given the risks posed by foreign interference to Canada’s national security, the committee expected the government to act. It was slow to do so,” says the report.

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“In the committee’s view, this delay contributed in part to the crisis in which the government found itself in late 2022 and early 2023.”

The committee says Canada’s security and intelligence community has been held back by outmoded tools and legislation. 

“Gaps in these areas limited the ability of security and intelligence organizations to act, particularly with respect to sharing information with law enforcement bodies to enable investigations, lay charges or support prosecutions,” says the report. 

Chair David McGuinty speaks about the Annual Report of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians during a news conference in Ottawa, Tuesday April 9, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The report also points out that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has been unable to share “salient information” with players outside the federal government, such as parliamentarians and other orders of government.

“These gaps contribute to a situation in which there are few meaningful deterrents to foreign states and their Canada-based proxies to conduct interference activities,” says the report.

Government disagrees with elements of NSICOP report 

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the government will consider NSICOP’s findings and recommendations but disagrees with elements of the report.

“The government’s concerns centre around the interpretation of intelligence reports, which lacked the necessary caveats inherent to intelligence, as well as the lack of acknowledgement of the full breadth of outreach that has been done with respect to informing parliamentarians about the threat posed by foreign interference,” he said Monday afternoon.

The committee found that China poses “the largest foreign interference threat to Canada,” with India as the second-most significant threat.

Its report said CSIS and the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency, have collected a body of intelligence showing that that foreign actors have targeted federal parliamentarians to collect information to support “potential future efforts to coerce them.”

Foreign actors have also intimidated or pressured parliamentarians whom they perceived as having taken political positions counter to theirs, says NSICOP.

NSICOP says that in some cases, parliamentarians were unaware they were targets of foreign interference.

It also says that some elected officials “began wittingly assisting foreign state actors” soon after their election.

Many of the details were redacted from the public report but the committee said it’s seen evidence members of Parliament worked to influence their colleagues on India’s behalf and proactively provided confidential information to Indian officials.

NSICOP makes 6 recommendations

The report goes on to make six recommendations aimed at the federal government. It calls on Ottawa to update the CSIS Act, to develop consistent definitions and thresholds for action on foreign interference and to start reporting annually on briefings for parliamentarians on foreign interference.

Last month, the federal government introduced Bill C-70, which is aimed at curbing foreign interference in Canadian politics. It would introduce new foreign interference offences, change how CSIS  applies for warrants, update the rules on whom CSIS can brief and launch a long-awaited foreign influence transparency registry.

“Canada is only now beginning to see the introduction of additional measures to address foreign interference activities,” says NSICOP.

The NSICOP committee was set up in 2017 to provide parliamentary oversight on Ottawa’s intelligence operations, including at CSIS, the RCMP, Global Affairs Canada and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE). 

MPs and senators on the committee receive security clearances permitting them to see and hear details of the agencies’ highly secret activities.

The committee is made up of three Liberal MPs, two Conservatives, one NDP, one Bloc Québécois member and three senators.

Last month, the public inquiry investigating foreign interference found that attempts by other countries to meddle in the 2019 and 2021 general elections did not determine which party formed the government.

“Nonetheless, the acts of interference that occurred are a stain on our electoral process and impacted the process leading up to the actual vote,” Justice Marie-Josée Hogue wrote in her initial report.

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