Spy director stands by bold assertions in CSIS briefing notes on foreign interference

Spy director stands by bold assertions in CSIS briefing notes on foreign interference © Provided by The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — The head of Canada’s spy agency stands by the stark conclusions contained in a series of CSIS briefing notes, including that China “clandestinely and deceptively interfered” in the past two federal votes, he testified Friday.

But David Vigneault also agrees with a panel of top bureaucrats who concluded there was no significant threat to Canada’s free and fair elections in 2021 and 2019.

Vigneault, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, testified for a second time Friday before a federal inquiry into foreign election interference.

He was asked to appear virtually to face fresh questions about the briefing materials, which weren’t available the first time he took the stand.

The CSIS memos that have since been tabled at the inquiry make several bald assertions.

One memo, dated Feb. 21, 2023, declares that CSIS knows China “clandestinely and deceptively interfered in both the 2019 and 2021 general elections.”

“We saw foreign interference during those elections and the evidence is that interference was indeed clandestine and deceptive,” Vigneault said in response to the passage during his testimony by video conference.

“At the same time, that interference did not amount to have an impact on the integrity of the election.”

The same memo tabled at the commission includes specific but highly redacted examples of possible interference attempts, and asserts state actors can conduct foreign interference “successfully” in Canada because there are few legal or political consequences.

The memo calls foreign interference a “low-risk and high-reward” proposition.

Another memo from 2022 concludes that until Canada views foreign interference as an “existential threat” to Canadian democracy and responds forcefully, “these threats will persist.”

The documents were prepared for Vigneault ahead of meetings he had with the prime minister, but he said much of the content was not passed on to Justin Trudeau or his office during those meetings.

The documents were not referenced in the meetings, which instead focused on specific instances of possible foreign interference, he said.

However, he said he has made those kinds of general comments to the prime minister and in other forums on many occasions.

“This is something that I have absolutely said a number of times … in public and in private,” he said.

Asked about whether those sentiments were passed onto him, Trudeau said those conversations informed the safeguards Liberals put in place to guard elections against foreign interference.

Under a protocol ushered in by the Liberals, there would be a public announcement if a panel of bureaucrats determined that an incident — or an accumulation of incidents — threatened Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.

There was no such announcement concerning either the 2019 or 2021 general elections. In both ballots, the Liberals were returned to government with minority mandates while the Conservatives formed the official Opposition.

“No government in the history of the country has ever taken foreign interference as seriously as we have over the past number of years, in terms of the institutions, the measures, the new tools that we’ve developed,” Trudeau said.

He made similar comments during his own testimony before the commission earlier this week.

The conclusion of Vigneault’s evidence marks the end of 10 days of fact-finding hearings, including testimony from politicians, bureaucrats and representatives from several intelligence and security agencies.

The hearings are part of the inquiry’s effort to examine possible foreign interference by China, India, Russia and others in the last two general elections.

Throughout the last week of testimony, the prime minister’s national security adviser and other members of his staff argued the statements in the memos don’t necessarily reflect that foreign actors made a meaningful impact on the results of the last two elections.

The commission is expected to deliver a preliminary report by May 3, and will deliver final recommendations by the end of the year.

In September, the commission is expected to hold another round of hearings focused on Canada’s capacity to detect and deter foreign interference.

Source: Laura Osman, The Canadian Press