CSIS and Trudeau’s adviser clashed on foreign interference threat during 2021: report

28 May 2024
CSIS and Trudeau’s adviser clashed on foreign interference threat during 2021: report


Intelligence regarding foreign interference sometimes didn’t make it to the prime minister’s desk in 2021 because Canada’s spy agency and the prime minister’s national security adviser didn’t always see eye to eye on the nature of the threat, according to a recent report from one of Canada’s intelligence watchdogs.

The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) released a report on Monday evening pointing to several schisms in the flow of information between Canada’s intelligence agencies and the federal government during the last two federal elections.

The independent body was asked to take on the review in March 2023, following media reports, citing unnamed security sources and classified documents, that accused China of interfering in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. Some of the reports also suggested that members of the Liberal government were aware of certain attempts at interference but didn’t act.

The government tabled NSIRA’s report late Monday in the House of Commons.

According to the intelligence watchdog, Privy Council Office and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) analysts produced reports in 2021 meant to serve as summary overviews of Chinese foreign interference activities.

The prime minister’s national security intelligence adviser (NSIA), however, viewed the reports as “recounting standard diplomatic activity,” Monday’s report said.

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“The gap between CSIS’s point of view and that of the NSIA is significant, because the question is so fundamental,” it said.

“CSIS collected, analyzed, and reported intelligence about activities that it considered to be significant threats to national security; one of the primary consumers of that reporting (and the de facto conduit of intelligence to the Prime Minister) disagreed with that assessment.”

NSIRA said that disagreement played a role in those intelligence products not reaching the political executive, including the prime minister.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service director David Vigneault prepares to appear before the Special Committee on the Canada–People’s Republic of China Relationship, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 29. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

“Commitments to address political foreign interference are straightforward in theory, but will inevitably suffer in practice if rudimentary disagreements as to the nature of the threat persist in the community,” the report said.

The report doesn’t name which adviser it’s referring to. The national security and intelligence adviser’s office was in flux in 2021.

Vincent Rigby retired and left the position at the end of June of that year and was later replaced by Jody Thomas in early 2022.

Dave Morrison, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, acted as the adviser until Thomas was appointed. But during the window of July 16 to Aug. 3, 2021, Mike MacDonald was filling in.

‘Grey zone’ of foreign interference

NSIRA said the “disagreements and misalignments” between the adviser and CSIS underscore what’s called the “grey zone,” where political foreign interference borders on typical political or diplomatic activity.

“This challenge was ever-present in the activities under review, influencing decisions about whether to disseminate and how to characterize what was shared, while raising sensitivities in terms of reporting about activities which skirt the political and diplomatic realms,” NSIRA wrote.

“The risk of characterizing legitimate political or diplomatic behaviour as a threat led some members of the intelligence community to not identify certain activities as threat activities.”

The report recommends that “regular consumers of intelligence work to enhance intelligence literacy within their departments and that, further, the security and intelligence community develop a common, working understanding of what constitutes political foreign interference.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa on May 7. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

NSIRA’s report said CSIS also struggled to reconcile whether to report foreign interference without being seen as, itself, interfering in elections.

Ultimately, CSIS’s dissemination of intelligence on political foreign interference during the last two elections “was inconsistent,” it said.

“The threat posed by political foreign interference activities was not clearly communicated by CSIS,” the NSIRA report said.

Inquiry also pointed to gaps

Earlier this month, the foreign interference commission found that attempts by other countries to meddle in the 2019 and 2021 general elections did not impact 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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Hogue said none of the evidence she’s heard to date suggests officials acted in “bad faith” or that information was deliberately and improperly withheld.

“But it does suggest that on some occasions, information related to foreign interference did not reach its intended recipient, while on others the information was not properly understood by those who received it,” she wrote.

Source: cbc

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