CSIS director says he warned about foreign interference threat multiple times

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Foreign election interference: CSIS director says he warned about threat multiple times
WATCH: The head of Canada's spy agency, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), appeared for a second time at the inquiry into foreign interference. Touria Izri reports – Apr 12, 2024

The head of Canada’s intelligence agency says he’s made stark warnings on the threats of foreign interference publicly multiple times, despite Justin Trudeau’s senior staff contending the spy chief did not specifically mention them during top secret briefings.

David Vigneault, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), said Friday that he has repeatedly referred to the “existential” threat of foreign interference in public comments over the years.

Vigneault was recalled to testify again before the federal inquiry into foreign interference after Trudeau’s senior staff, including Chief of Staff Katie Telford and her deputy Brian Clow, suggested the CSIS briefing notes submitted to the inquiry did not match the information Vigneault conveyed to them in their meetings.

But Vigneault said those in-person briefings focused on specific foreign interference threats, and that he did not convey every talking point his staff at CSIS had prepared for him.

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“These are more tombstone facts about foreign interference as opposed to the purpose of the meeting in October (2022), which was about specific cases,” Vigneault told the inquiry.

“I would not have gone through these notes and cover something like ‘Canada has been slower than our Five Eyes allies or others,’ because these are statements that I had made before in public and in private or during briefings to ministers.”

The Liberal government initially resisted calls for a full public inquiry into foreign interference in Canada’s 2019 and 2021 election, but relented after months of headlines about specific allegations – mostly related to the People’s Republic of China – allegedly meddling in Canadian affairs.

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?

Testifying earlier this week, Trudeau’s senior staff repeatedly suggested the “stark” warnings in CSIS documents submitted to the committee were not conveyed to them during in-person briefings.

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The document, made public by the inquiry, warn that foreign interference is a “low-risk, high-reward” approach for hostile foreign states, that Canada has been slower to act on the issue than allies, and that the government needs to change its approach to grapple with this “existential” threat.

“These bullet points (in the document), which we only saw, again, in preparation for the appearance here, have very little resemblance to what the prime minister was told in that briefing on October 27,” said Brian Clow, Trudeau’s deputy chief of staff and a long-time member of his inner circle.

“We have never heard language like the stuff that is in this document … for what it’s worth,” testified Jeremy Broadhurst, the party’s former campaign director.

But Vigneault’s testimony suggested that while specific bullet points may not have been conveyed, their content should have come as no surprise to senior government officials tasked with countering foreign influence and interference operations.

Vigneault has been publicly talking about the threat of foreign interference operations – not just in Canadian elections, but for multiple levels of government, in private business and research and development – shortly after he assumed the role of CSIS director in 2017.

“Terrorism has understandably occupied a significant portion of our collective attention … (but) other national security threats – such as foreign interference, cyber threats, and espionage – pose greater strategic challenges and must also be addressed,” Vigneault told the Economic Club of Canada in 2018.

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In the agency’s 2020 public report – a sanitized version of the top-secret material available to ministers and the prime minister – CSIS reported it has observed “espionage and foreign interference activity at levels not seen since the Cold War.”

The following year, the agency’s public report called foreign interference one of the “key” national security threats facing Canada, and noted it has “accelerated and evolved.”

At a 2021 speech to the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), Vigneault noted that “foreign interference has always been present in Canada, but its scale, speed, range, and impact have grown as a result of globalization and technology.”

None of these comments required top secret security clearance or a personal briefing from Canada’s spy chief – they are publicly available online and in news reporting through a quick Google search.

At a press conference on Friday, Trudeau was asked about Vigneault’s testimony and that while the CSIS director didn’t read out his briefing materials word-for-word, he did warn the government about Chinese meddling in Canadian elections. Trudeau was asked why his government didn’t take more action, and whether he trusted CSIS enough.

“I have tremendous trust in our intelligence agencies as I testified (at the inquiry) to do really important work to keep Canadians safe,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau pointed to his government’s past national security reforms, such as bringing in parliamentary oversight of intelligence agencies, setting up an multi-agency task force to safeguard elections, and creating a panel of five senior public servants to alert the public if foreign interference threatens election integrity.

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“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. But as the director of CSIS highlighted, there’s always more to do.”

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