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Canadian politicians were targets of Indian intelligence covert influence operation: document

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Indian intelligence agencies attempted to use money and disinformation to “covertly influence” Canadian politicians, according to a highly sensitive government document obtained by Global News.

The document shows that Canadian security officials suspected India’s two main intelligence branches had asked an Indian citizen to sway politicians in this country into supporting Indian government interests.

The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB) were allegedly behind the operation, which began in 2009, the document said.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office declined to comment on the case but said the government was “concerned when any country shows destabilizing behavior, including interference in other countries’ democratic systems.”

READ MORE: China, Russia are meddling in Canadian politics and society, warns security watchdog

The alleged foreign influence operation was disclosed in Federal Court proceedings involving an Indian national accused by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service of espionage.

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Identified in court records only as “A.B.,” the man is the editor-in-chief of an unnamed Indian newspaper. His wife and son are Canadian citizens.

He allegedly met Indian intelligence more than 25 times over six years, most recently in May 2015 — a month after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Canada.

He denied allegations he had been “covertly” “tasked” by Indian “handlers,” and said he had only met the intelligence agencies in is capacity as an editor.

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But he did not dispute being “asked by the IB and RAW to perform various functions,” according to the court. The agencies wanted him to “act as an unofficial lobbyist or diplomat,” although he said he had refused to work for them.

“You stated that you were tasked by RAW to covertly influence Canadian government representatives and agencies on behalf of the Indian government,” according to a letter sent to him by an immigration official.

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“You stated that you were told to identify random Caucasian politicians and attempt to direct them into supporting issues that impacted India,” the letter continued.

“You stated that the guidance from RAW included that you were to provide financial assistance and propaganda material to politicians in order to exert influence over them.”

READ MORE: Ottawa company barred from national security work after alleged contact with Indian intelligence

One of his tasks was allegedly “to convince politicians that funding from Canada was being sent to Pakistan to support terrorism,” according to the letter, dated May 30, 2018.

The security screening investigation was triggered when he applied to immigrate to Canada.

Prof. Stephanie Carvin said while India had long been active in the country, the case was a rare example of its interference with Canadian elected officials.

“To my mind, this is one of the first public examples of evidence of clandestine foreign influence targeted at Canadian politicians” said the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs expert.

The allegation of Indian meddling follows the release last month of a National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) report on foreign interference.

The report acknowledged that China, Russia and other states were conducting foreign interference activities in Canada and that “elected and public officials across all orders of government” were being targeted.

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It added that 1.2 million Canadians were of Indian descent, and that some communities were “vulnerable to foreign interference either as targets or as a means of undermining Canadian values and freedoms.”

“A great deal of foreign interference has the goal of creating a single narrative or consistent message that helps to ensure the survival and prosperity of the foreign state,” the report added.

READ MORE: Chinese, Indian communities in Canada can be used for ‘hostile-state activity,’ officials say

Carvin said it was difficult to know if Indian foreign interference had any impact on Canadian policy.

“But the fact is, the success of clandestine foreign influence operations are not the point — it is the fact that states are trying to engage in these activities.”

“The recent NSICOP report on clandestine foreign interference does not name India but it does make note of the fact that there is a large Indian population in Canada,” the national security expert said.

“This suggests that it was one of the countries that our national security and intelligence agencies are concerned with. But again, this is the first time I have seen public information which suggests that these operations are going outside the Canadian South Asian community.”

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RAW is India’s external intelligence service, while the IB is its domestic intelligence agency.

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India has long sought to pressure Ottawa over what it alleges to be continued support within Canada for violent extremists advocating independence for India’s Sikh minority.

It has also campaigned against neighbouring Pakistan over its failure to curb terrorist organizations such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, which attacked Mumbai in 2008, killing more than 160.

Canada refused to allow A.B. into the country on the grounds he was engaged in espionage, but the court overturned that decision because it was based on a summary of his alleged statements rather than a transcript.

The court said the decision to exclude him from Canada rested largely on an immigration officer’s finding that it was implausible he did not supply information to Indian intelligence officers, given how frequently he met them.

“However, A.B. is a journalist and editor-in-chief of a newspaper. It is not inconceivable that he would meet with government sources every other month while maintaining his journalistic independence,” the court ruled.

In accusing him of espionage, the immigration officer had relied on an “undated and unattributed” summary of his interview with Canadian authorities, which the court ruled was unreasonable.

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca