New foreign interference documents raise questions about special rapporteur report

Click to play video: 'Redacted CSIS files presented at foreign interference inquiry'
Redacted CSIS files presented at foreign interference inquiry
WATCH: Redacted CSIS files presented at foreign interference inquiry – Apr 8, 2024

New intelligence documents published by the federal foreign interference inquiry raise questions about the conclusions of former Governor General David Johnston’s probe into the issue.

Johnston, whom Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed a special rapporteur on foreign interference, ruled out calling a public inquiry last May.

Had Johnston’s recommendation been accepted, a trove of national security documents released this week by the Foreign Interference Commission would have never seen the light of day.

The new information, submitted by CSIS, highlights allegations of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) “highly capable and motivated” activities against Canada’s democratic process and institutions.

Click to play video: 'What is the political fallout from latest foreign interference inquiry revelations?'
What is the political fallout from latest foreign interference inquiry revelations?

Some of that information appears to directly challenge Johnston’s interpretation of top-secret intelligence and the extent of foreign interference operations – principally by Beijing – in Canada.

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A spokesperson for Johnston said Friday he “is not responding to any further media inquiries about his role as Independent Special Rapporteur.”

Secret $250,00 fund earmarked for pro-Beijing network

Late Thursday afternoon, David Vigneault, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), revealed they had intelligence that alleges that Beijing tried to funnel approximately $250,000 to interfere with the 2019 general election.

While CSIS offered no evidence that money changed hands, the summary it put forth suggests the money was intended to be disbursed through an alleged interference network including an influential community member, a staff member of a 2019 federal candidate, and an unnamed Ontario MPP. The intelligence suggests the money was meant to benefit 11 campaigns, including seven Liberals and four Conservative candidates.

Global News first reported the existence of the alleged quarter-million-dollar fund in 2022, citing unnamed national security sources.

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But in his report released last May, Johnston called the reporting “inflammatory.”

“It appears from limited intelligence that the PRC intended for funds to be sent to seven Liberal and four Conservative federal candidates through a community organization, political staff and (possibly unwittingly) a Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario MPP,” Johnston’s report read.

“The Prime Minister pointed out that he is not briefed on matters that are not supported by reliable intelligence. No recommendations were made to any minister or the Prime Minister about this allegation, and therefore no recommendations were ignored.”

During Thursday’s hearing, Vigneault did give the caveat that intelligence is not evidence, and that the alleged $250,000 in funding may require further investigation.

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But the spy chief nevertheless said his words were “carefully chosen to make sure that (CSIS) are providing (the) commissioner and Canadians with the most accurate possible depiction of what we know while protecting classified information.”

The spy agency’s assessment was that the funds were possibly “for foreign interference-related purposes though most likely not an attempt to covertly fund the 11 candidates.”

Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his national security and intelligence advisor, Jody Thomas, repeatedly said there was no evidence that money allegedly changed hands – but did not acknowledge the government knew about the money.

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Han Dong’s nomination and busloads of students

On Tuesday, the inquiry heard CSIS had intelligence that Chinese international students who went to a private high school were bussed in to vote in former Liberal MP Han Dong’s 2019 nomination contest in the Toronto-area riding of Don Valley North, as first reported by Global News.

Dong did not mention the buses in his initial interview with the commission six weeks prior to the hearing. Dong instead told the commission the day before his testimony

“I was reminded by my wife,” Dong  said on Tuesday.

In his May report, however, Johnston called bussing voters standard practice.

“Reports of buses of people brought to nomination meetings may be a surprise to the less initiated, but numerous people with campaign experience told us that there are always buses, and wondered whether they get more attention when they contain racialized Canadians,” read his report.

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But a CSIS intelligence summary presented to the inquiry this week suggested that the students may not have lived in Dong’s riding, were provided with fake identification, and had been coerced into voting.

“Some intelligence reporting also indicated that the students were provided with falsified documents to allow them to vote, despite not being residents of DVN (Don Valley North). The documents were provided by individuals associated with a known proxy agent,” the summary read.

“Intelligence reported after the election indicated that veiled threats were issued by the PRC Consulate to the Chinese international students, implying their visas would be in jeopardy and that there could be consequences for their families back in the PRC if they did not support Han Dong.”

Dong said he was told about the bus and presumed it had been organized by the school itself.

“I didn’t pay attention to busing international students because… I didn’t understand it as an irregularity,” he said. 

Johnston’s report noted that while “irregularities were observed with Mr. Dong’s nomination” in 2019 and that there were “well-grounded” suspicions those irregularities were tied to the PRC consulate in Toronto, Johnston “did not find evidence that Mr. Dong was aware of the irregularities or the PRC Consulate’s potential involvement in his nomination.”

Dong denied any knowledge of the students using falsified documents to vote in the nomination.

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“I would be the first one condemning it. I think it’s an insult to our democratic system,” he said.

Asked if he accepted that the PRC was attempting to interfere in Canadian politics, Dong said he had “seen reports about that” but he had not personally “seen any evidence of it.”

Dong’s conversation about the “Two Michaels”

On Tuesday, the inquiry heard Canada’s spy agency recorded a phone call between Dong and China’s consul general in Toronto discussing the detention of the “Two Michaels” in early 2021, when the Canadians were still in custody.

The document, primarily created by CSIS, is described as an “incomplete” intelligence and its allegations have not been proven, despite having a recording of the phone conversation.

Global News first reported in March 2023, citing unnamed national security sources, that Dong spoke to a Chinese diplomat at the Toronto consulate about the detention of the “Two Michaels” and advised against their immediate release. Dong has disputed those claims, and is suing Corus Entertainment, Global’s parent company.

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In a CSIS summary of the conversation, Dong allegedly speculated to the diplomat that if the Chinese government freed the Canadians right away it would bolster the “hardline” approach to Canada-China relations, whereas more “transparency” around their detention would placate public opinion and give the Liberal government “talking points.”

“Mr. Dong expressed the view that even if the PRC released the ‘Two Michaels’ at that moment, opposition parties would view the PRC’s action as an affirmation of the effectiveness of a hardline Canadian approach to the PRC,” read the CSIS intelligence summary.

The declassified document also alleges Dong “stressed that any transparency provided by the PRC in relation to the ‘Two Michaels’ such as a court hearing or a court date, would help to placate Canadian public opinion and provide some valuable talking points to his own political party against the opposition.”

Dong testified that he didn’t recall making these statements, but added the information in the summary “didn’t make a lot of sense”.

The MP also maintained that he has always advocated for the release of the “Two Michaels.”

Back in May, Johnston dismissed any notion Dong suggested China extend the detention of the “Two Michaels.”

“The allegation is false. Mr. Dong discussed the ‘Two Michaels’ with a PRC official, but did not suggest to the official that the PRC extend their detention,” Johnston wrote.

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“Ministers and the Prime Minister went out of their way to defend Mr. Dong, whom they believe has been badly harmed by the reporting,” the special rapporteur continued.

“They did not believe the media reports when they came out, as they found Mr. Dong to be a loyal and helpful member of caucus. They received no recommendations about this allegation, as it is false.”

After the release of his report, Johnston admitted he did not interview Dong.

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