Political sensitivities impeded foreign interference reporting: watchdog

Click to play video: 'CSIS watchdog flags ‘gaps’ in flow of information'
CSIS watchdog flags ‘gaps’ in flow of information
WATCH: There are serious "gaps" in the way CSIS, the RCMP, and other federal security agencies and departments shared intelligence about foreign interference by China between 2018 and 2023, according to a new report from the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA). David Akin explains – May 28, 2024

An intelligence official asked a question in a recent report about foreign interference: if the Canadian Security Intelligence Service isn’t sharing “what we know, why are we collecting it?”

That question is at the heart of a new report by the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) about how Canada’s intelligence services told senior bureaucrats and politicians about foreign interference in Canada’s last two general elections.

The independent review body found “basic challenges” in security officials sharing intelligence about foreign interference with their political masters, particularly during an election period.

In other words: Would Canada’s spy agency warning about foreign influence be seen as influence itself?

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“The risk of characterizing legitimate political or diplomatic behaviour as a threat led some members of the intelligence community to not identify certain activities as threat activities,” the report, released Monday evening, read.

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“A basic tension held: any action – including the dissemination of intelligence – taken by (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS) prior to or during an election must not, and must not be seen to, influence that election,” the report said.

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Canadian intelligence agencies have long warned that foreign countries – particularly China, but also Russia, Iran, India and Pakistan – are exerting influence on diaspora groups. Some countries, again China in particular, are allegedly engaging in economic espionage to steal trade secrets and research from Canada’s top universities and private business.

But the idea of foreign interference in Canadian democracy and elections came to a head in 2022, when Global News cited confidential national security sources about the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) alleged interest in Canadian political affairs.

The revelations, followed by reporting in the Globe and Mail, pressured the Liberal government to acquiesce to a public inquiry into foreign interference in both the 2019 and 2021 general elections.

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That public report found that PRC interference in Canadian domestic affairs – including in diaspora communities – was a significant national security concern.

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The NSIRA report suggests there was disagreement between CSIS and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s National Security and Intelligence Advisor (NSIA). The NSIA position doesn’t direct intelligence collection, but has a crucial role in what senior politicians see in terms of intelligence analysis and reports.

“NSIRA found that there was disagreement between senior public servants and the NSIA as to whether intelligence assessments should be shared with the political executive,” the report concluded.

“Ultimately, the NSIA’s interventions resulted in two products not reaching the political executive, including the prime minister.”

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