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Foreign interference is not just a Canadian problem. What are our allies saying?

Click to play video: 'Canada’s election outcome was legitimate, but individual races may not be: former top spy'
Canada’s election outcome was legitimate, but individual races may not be: former top spy
WATCH - Canada's election outcome was legitimate, but individual races may not be: former top spy – Feb 26, 2023

Despite the growing number of reports, attempted foreign interference isn’t a unique Canadian problem.

However, Canadian intelligence officials need to follow in the footsteps of their allies in being more forthcoming about it, a former Canadian diplomat to China says.

Over the last number of weeks, Global News and The Globe and Mail have revealed detailed reports showing the scope of China’s alleged efforts to influence Canadian society, including allegations of attempts to interfere in the 2019 and 2021 elections.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ensured the integrity of those results — but so far has not clearly answered questions about calls for a public inquiry into the matter, despite calls from prominent officials to do so.

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Click to play video: 'Trudeau pushes back against reports that security officials sounded the alarm on foreign interference prior to 2019 election'
Trudeau pushes back against reports that security officials sounded the alarm on foreign interference prior to 2019 election

As attention on the issue grows in Canada, allies are sounding the alarm over the scale of foreign interference in their own nations — a step Canadian officials should be doing more frequently, says Charles Burton, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

“They tend to refuse to give details, claiming that for operational reasons they cannot provide these details, which makes it very hard for the parliamentarians to have a sound basis for recommending improved legislation or for urging government to enforce existing regulations,” he told Global News.

“This is a cultural issue with our security and intelligence services, possibly due to direction from government, that they just aren’t giving us the information we need to know to effectively counter these operations,” he continued.

“They’re only providing the government with the information that they are ongoing and the government is evidently filing that and not taking the appropriate action that I think Canadians want our government to take in response to these very serious allegations.”

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Australian, U.S. officials publicly raise interference concerns

Last week, both American and Australian security officials openly talked about the threat foreign interference poses to their countries during separate events.

On Feb. 21, the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) said Australia faces an unprecedented threat with more Australians being targeted by agents than ever before. In his 21-page assessment speech, Mike Burgess said multiple nations were using espionage and foreign interference to advance their interests and undermine Australia’s.

“They are using espionage to covertly understand Australia’s politics and decision-making, our alliances and partnerships, and our economic and policy priorities,” Burgess said.

“Based on what ASIO is seeing, more Australians are being targeted for espionage and foreign interference than at any time in Australia’s history — more hostile foreign intelligence services, more spies, more targeting, more harm, more ASIO investigations, more ASIO disruptions.”

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Click to play video: 'Liberal MP allegedly tied to Chinese interference: sources'
Liberal MP allegedly tied to Chinese interference: sources

He did not name any specific countries, but said Australians being targeted by foreign governments include judges, media commentators and journalists, adding that a small number of “judicial figures” has been subjected to “suspicious approaches.”

That same day, top U.S. state election and cybersecurity officials warned about threats posed by Russia and other foreign adversaries ahead of the 2024 elections, noting America’s decentralized system of thousands of local voting jurisdictions creates a vulnerability.

Russia and Iran have meddled in previous elections, including attempts to tap into internet-connected electronic voter databases, but with both distracted by war and protests, neither country appeared to disrupt last year’s midterm elections, security officials said during the National Association of Secretaries of State.

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However, they expect U.S. foes to be more active as the next presidential election season draws near.

Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, referenced Russia’s war on Ukraine and the U.S.-led effort to support Kyiv as a possible motivators for meddling. She said the agency was “very concerned about potential retaliation from Russia of our critical infrastructure.”

She also mentioned China as another possible source of election interference.

China’s relations with the United States, and Canada for that matter, have deteriorated over the years. They most recently took a hit after a suspected spy balloon violated both countries’ airspaces before being shot down by a U.S. fighter jet off the coast of the Carolinas.

Click to play video: 'Canadians should ‘have faith in their institutions,’ Trudeau says about Chinese election interference'
Canadians should ‘have faith in their institutions,’ Trudeau says about Chinese election interference

“The government has to come clean on this, and we need a public inquiry,” Burton said.

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“It’s just a question of gaining some transparency on this in a way that will assure Canadians that our government is responding to the increasing threat of malign activities by the Chinese Communist Party in Canada.”

Transparency ‘extraordinarily important’: Trudeau

Meanwhile, Trudeau on Monday said transparency is “extraordinarily important,” and while he didn’t directly answer questions on the possibility of an independent public inquiry, he did encourage Parliament’s national security committee — a cross-partisan panel with access to classified documents and briefings — to investigate the matter.

He added that Jody Thomas — his top national security and intelligence adviser — and Global Affairs Canada Deputy Minister David Morrison will testify at a parliamentary committee investigating foreign interference issues.

That meeting is scheduled for Wednesday.

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Michael Wernick, who served as clerk of the Privy Council for Canada from 2016 to 2019, told Global News that how much information Canadian intelligence officials can share has always been a “delicate issue.”

“I certainly support taking another look at the threshold and probably moving it in the direction of transparency, but it’s not a straightforward thing,” he said.

“You do not want to compromise the capabilities of our intelligence and security services to protect us.”

Click to play video: 'Foreign state actors ‘can move a needle’ in certain ridings, Conservative MP questions during committee hearing'
Foreign state actors ‘can move a needle’ in certain ridings, Conservative MP questions during committee hearing

However, he added that there are precedents out there for Canada to follow when it comes to tightening its laws that can be acted upon now. For example, he cited Australia’s public registry that requires people advocating for a foreign state to register their activities, under penalty of fines or jail time.

The United States has a similar program.

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Two months ago, the Liberals said they will eventually consult the public on the possible creation of a foreign agent registry, but the government has yet to formally launch that consultation.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said on Feb. 6 a registry to track foreign agents operating in Canada can only be implemented in lockstep with diverse communities. He told reporters in Halifax Tuesday that the government has “put in place exactly the mechanisms and the tools that we need to mitigate against the threats, which are posed by foreign interference as it relates to our elections and our democratic institutions.”

Burton said the federal government needs to act more quickly.

“If Canada does not start to take this matter much more seriously and engage in effective measures to bring it under control and ensure that the Chinese regime is complying with the norms of the international rules-based order in its relations with Canada, this could impact on our alliance with the Five Eyes,” he said, citing potential concerns around “elite capture.”

Elite capture was a concern raised by Burgess in his speech last week, in particular the risk that it and other unchecked forms of foreign interference and espionage can pose for information security among allies.

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“It’s critical our allies know we can keep our secrets, and keep their secrets,” Burgess had said.

Click to play video: 'Did Canada’s election integrity panels get access to China memos? What the minister says'
Did Canada’s election integrity panels get access to China memos? What the minister says

The “Five Eyes” is an intelligence-sharing alliance that includes Australia, Britain, the U.S., New Zealand and Canada.

“If the United States sees us as a weak link in the Five Eyes, and that we are subject to elite capture by agents of a foreign hostile power, this could then limit the ability of the United States to share intelligence with us and collaborate with Canada in matters of security and intelligence,” Burton said.

“It’s not just about protecting us domestically from the Chinese threat, it’s also about maintaining the very important alliances that we have with our like-minded allies that keep our country safe and protect our security and sovereignty.”

— with files from Global News’ Marc-Andre Cossette, The Associated Press and The Canadian Press

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