Former Governor-General David Johnston surprised some observers by recommending against a full public inquiry into the allegations of Chinese interference in Canada’s elections. In a lengthy report released today Johnson said that based on the amount of top secret information that would need to be discussed, such an inquiry would still have to be held largely out of the public eye. He does recommend public hearings on “the serious governance and policy issues…should and will be held at the earliest possible date.”
Dealing with the news report by the Globe and Mail and Global news that led to his appointment as special rapporteur, Johnson suggested the news outlets were leaked selective materials, and when he read the full volume of materials pertaining to foreign interference “in full context with all of the relevant intelligence, several leaked materials that raised legitimate questions turn out to have been misconstrued in some media reports, presumably because of the lack of this context.”
Despite his questions about the accuracy of the media reports, Johnson says there is no question foreign interference is happening, writing, “Foreign governments are undoubtedly attempting to influence candidates and voters in Canada. While much has been done already, more remains to be done promptly to strengthen our capacity to detect, deter and counter foreign interference in our elections.”
Johnson says there is a need for a complete overhaul of the way intelligence information is relayed to the government. He described a process where intelligence information , much of it unverified, is collected in large binders with little to guide the reader to a conclusion on what if any action need be taken. “Staff at the PMO speak of being given a large binder in a secure room with an agency client relations officer present, a short time to review it, with no context or prioritization of the material, and no ability to take notes (for security reasons). The binder may have a significant mix of topics from around the world, and no one says, “you should pay attention to this issue in particular.
Describing the nature of intelligence-gathering Johnston observes, “It is extremely rare for CSIS to obtain intelligence, notify the Minister of Public Safety, and expect immediate action. First, a significant amount of intelligence comes from human sources reporting something they heard. It is difficult to turn that into evidence that is usable by law enforcement. Second, the need to disclose evidence to a defendant threatens sources and methods.”
Johnston is promising a final report this fall, saying he will be more visible and more public in his activities going forward.
“I intend to find ways to speak publicly to and hear from Canadians about these issues, and receive their input. For example, I have already received letters from select Chinese Canadian community organizations indicating their concerns about how foreign interference is impacting the Chinese diaspora community, and the harmful effects it is having on civil society within that community. I therefore intend to organize public hearings that learn from (Chinese) diaspora community members and experts in national security and international relations. I also plan to have some of the conversations I have had with senior national security officials in public, so that Canadians can hear from them firsthand.”
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