Published April 8, 2024

CSIS prepped PMO briefing on China's election meddling, documents at inquiry show

By Stephanie Taylor, Dylan Robertson and Anja Karadeglija

Updated April 9, 2024 @ 10:26am

Canada's spy agency knew China "clandestinely and deceptively interfered" in the past two federal votes, says a briefing document that emerged Monday at the public inquiry into foreign interference.

The heavily redacted, six-page document is dated February 2023 and carries the title, "Briefing to the Prime Minister's Office on foreign interference threats to Canada's democratic institutions." 

It was prepared for his office by the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service following anonymous media leaks in the fall of 2022 about foreign interference allegations, the inquiry heard.

The document says CSIS provided 34 briefings on foreign interference — including during the last two federal elections — to numerous cabinet ministers from June 2018 to December 2022. It says Trudeau was briefed in February 2021 and October 2022. 

Earlier Monday, senior government officials who monitored threats during the 2021 and 2019 elections said the information they received about foreign interference activities did not meet the high threshold for warning Canadians, either at a riding or national level. 

"We have seen some foreign interference activities, but we have seen nothing that (impacts) the rights of Canadians to have a free and fair election," said Nathalie Drouin, a member of both monitoring panels who now serves as the prime minister's national security and intelligence adviser. 

CSIS took the leaks to media "extremely seriously" because they posed a "direct threat" to the integrity of operations, the document notes.

In 2021, Chinese foreign interference was "almost certainly motivated by a perception" by the Conservative Party of Canada's campaign platform that was perceived as anti-China, it says.

It goes on to acknowledge "observed online and media activities" aimed at dissuading Canadians, "particularly of Chinese heritage," from supporting former leader Erin O'Toole and his party. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and staff members are set to testify later this week and look forward to answering the commission's questions, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office said Monday. 

Panel members were pressed about why they opted against public warnings during those campaigns, despite evidence of a misinformation campaign directed at former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu and the party more broadly during the 2021 vote.

Panel member Marta Morgan said the group tried during the campaign to establish if the information was being circulated organically or through a state-sponsored actor. While Chinese news outlets picked up stories against Chiu, those died down before the vote, the inquiry heard.

François Daigle, who sat on the 2021 panel as the deputy minister of justice, said that for the panel to intervene it would need "reliable information" of something nefarious taking place, such as a proxy acting on a state's behalf to spread falsehoods during an election. 

That's because freedom of expression is a protected Charter right and elections are a time of vigorous debate meant to sway voters. 

"To say a mere possibility of a proxy acting isn’t enough," Daigle said. 

The February 2023 briefing document from CSIS notes it was difficult to assess the impact of foreign interference activities on the past two elections

It pointed to how the panel of government officials for both the 2019 and 2021 votes assessed those activities did not impact the election overall and were not deemed serious enough to warrant a public notification. 

"We know that the (People's Republic of China) clandestinely and deceptively interfered in both the 2019 and 2021 general elections," the CSIS document read. 

"In both cases these … activities were pragmatic in nature and focused primarily on supporting those viewed to be either 'pro-PRC' or 'neutral on issues of interest to the PRC government." 

Under cross-examination, Drouin said the panel is not saying it didn’t "see any foreign interference," but that it concluded the interference wasn’t significant enough to take action.

"The intel we have seen, the incidents we have seen, didn’t change the outcome of the election," she said.

She also pushed back against a suggestion by O'Toole's lawyer that the panel had a "very strong bias to inaction" because intelligence "very rarely at first instance allows any degree of certainty."

"There is a reason that the threshold is very high," Drouin responded. 

"If the panel does an announcement based on something that is not substantiated, not true, we can create more harms than trying to correct something."

Just because the panel didn't take the step of alerting the public doesn’t mean other agencies like CSIS, the RCMP or Elections Canada weren't taking action, she added.

Drouin and officials spent Monday defending the need for a high threshold to notify the public of foreign interference attempts. Not only does it have the potential to sow confusion among Canadians, she said, it could also be seen as "interfering in a democratic exercise."

She outlined for the inquiry how the 2019 panel was alerted to a fake article being circulated by the Buffalo Chronicle about Trudeau, which she said Facebook took down in a "proactive" way as part of its commitment to defend the integrity of that election.

She also testified they were aware of students being bused to a controversial Liberal party nomination race in 2019 in Toronto, but details surrounding that report were uncorroborated and they did not know the candidate's name. 

Ultimately, Drouin said she put two and two together when media reports were later published about irregularities surrounding the nomination contest of Han Dong, the former Liberal MP who testified last week about encouraging Chinese international students to register for the Liberal party. 

The panel deliberated about how much they were able to look into a nomination campaign, given that political parties set most of the rules, except for financing which is federally regulated. 

Nomination races usually occur outside of election periods, Drouin noted.

She said the panel reached out to CSIS and other agencies asking them to provide any emerging intelligence about the nomination race. 

The federal elections commissioner and the Liberals were also informed about the intelligence, she added — in part because the commissioner’s mandate includes probing "potential irregularities when it comes to funding."

Banner image: The former Clerk of the Privy Council says senior government officials who monitored threats to Canada’s 2021 federal election did not observe incidents at either the national or riding level that hit the threshold for issuing a public alert. Monday, April 8, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2024.

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