The West Block – Episode 30, Season 12

Mercedes Stephenson, The West Block. Global News


Episode 30, Season 12

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Dick Fadden, Former National Security Advisor

James Moore, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister

Kurt Volker, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO



Ottawa, ON



Mercedes Stephenson: Face-off on Parliament Hill: opposition MPs take on the Prime Minister’s chief of staff over concerns about Chinese interference in our elections.


I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Welcome to The West Block.


Katie Telford appears before a Commons committee to answer questions on what she and Justin Trudeau knew about Beijing’s medaling and what they did about it. What impact will it have on calls for a public inquiry? Our panel weighs in.


And bombshell intelligence leaks rock the Pentagon after top-secret documents are posted online. How bad is the damage? We talk to a U.S. national security expert.


She’s considered the Prime Minister’s closest and most trusted advisor. Katie Telford left backroom strategy for committee room politics last week, testifying before the Procedure and House Affairs Committee. Opposition MPs grilled the Prime Minister’s chief of staff for more than two hours, pressing her repeatedly on what she and the Prime Minister knew about China’s medaling in the last two federal elections. There were some pointed questions, but Telford said she was limited on what she could disclose, citing national security concerns.


Katie Telford, Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “But on the specifics of what—of what you were referencing there, I can’t get into, unfortunately, in this public setting what was or wasn’t briefed on in the level of specificity you’d like.”


Mercedes Stephenson: So, what did we learn from Katie Telford’s testimony and what questions are still unanswered? Joining me now to discuss this are former CSIS Director and National Security and Intelligence Advisor to the Prime Minister, Dick Fadden; and former Conservative Cabinet Minister James Moore.


Thank you both so much for joining us. We did reach out to the Liberals, if folks are wondering there’s not a Liberal on the panel. There was not somebody available to join us. They obviously have been very busy in preparing for this committee.


Dick, I want to start with you. You’re the national security expert. We heard a lot of differences on I can’t confirm or deny. I can’t say. Did we learn anything from this testimony? Are we any further ahead for having heard it?


Dick Fadden, Former National Security Advisor: No, I don’t think we’ve learned anything substantive. I think it’s established beyond debate, the Prime Minister knew about this. To my way of thinking, the real issue now is what did he do about it, beside from the two or three things that Ms. Telford constantly repeated as having been done. They were done, you know, the NS-COP and the new agency for looking at national security agencies, but they were not done specifically for foreign intelligence. They were done for broader purposes. So they get credit for them, but I think saying they were done exclusively for foreign intell—foreign interference is a bit gilding the liddy—lily. I think one thing we did learn is that Ms. Telford’s a very good witness.


Mercedes Stephenson: And I was going to ask that question to you. As the politico on the panel, James, how do you think Katie Telford performed?


James Moore, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: Well I’ve been before a few dozen parliamentary committees over my time. I thought she performed well within the context in which she can perform and speak to things. However, I think to the point of this conversation, I think more questions are left unanswered than answered. But that’s part of the dynamic, because she’s not really there to sort of speak openly about this because the framework in which she has to communicate. And I think the public is left, you know, really sort of unsatisfied with the questions that are raised. And the fundamental questions are these, is, you know, the first is, with regard to election interference, either nothing happened and the government is satisfied by that, in which case, you should—they should share to the public what they’re—why it is that they’re satisfied.


Or the second thing is something happened but it’s not that big a deal because it’s kind of politics as usual, and people shouldn’t worry about it and they should tell the public why they’re not worried about it and what it is that they know.


Or the third thing is something serious and significant happened, but they’re not prepared to tell the public because the origins of that intelligence is something that they’re not capable of telling the public for broader and, you know, unintended intelligence and security problems that’ll erupt as a consequence of sharing that information, in which case we have a real serious problem. The only avenue out of this jungle is a public inquiry that is, I think, clear about this. But I think what’s also clear is that if there were to be a public inquiry, I think you would get a lot of the answers that Ms. Telford gave, which is a lot of hedging and a  lot of shadows and a lot of evasiveness, because the fundamental question about what did the government know? When did they know it? And what did they do about it? Those are the three fundamental questions that remain in front of us, unanswered and I don’t know if a public inquiry will get to it, but it might provide us with a little bit more assurance that we can get to a more substantive and reassuring place than we are today.


Mercedes Stephenson: Dick, there were some specifics that were provided as a result of the National Security Intelligence Advisor Jody Thomas giving that list of meetings. We found out, for example, there was a briefing in January of 2022. We don’t know what the briefing was about, but Global News had reported on a briefing. There was a briefing to the Liberal Party of Canada during the federal election. Again, we were reporting on a briefing to the Liberal Party of Canada. We weren’t able to get at any of the actual details. The closest we came was Ms. Telford saying it was quite possible that Prime Minister Trudeau was briefed on election interference in January of 2022. How much of this really is a national security issue for Katie Telford or the government to admit yes, we were warned, or no we weren’t, this is completely untrue? And how much of this is playing politics and kind of shielding behind national security?


Dick Fadden, Former National Security Advisor: I honestly think it’s a bit of both. I mean, there’s some real national security concerns in the sense that some of the information, the intelligence gathered may have been gathered through methodology that we don’t want to make public. We don’t want to identify sources. We don’t want to touch ongoing investigations, which is really very important. But I’ve always believed, and I tried to do when I was a witness before parliamentary committees, is if you can take some basic intelligence, if you aggregate it up a level or two, you can often say more than Ms. Telford or Ms. Thomas decided to say. So that’s why I think—I think it’s a mix of national security and politics. Clearly, the government, for the reasons that worries James Moore, don’t want to say a great deal about it. So I think it’s a mix of the two. I think if they wanted to say a bit more, they could aggregate up. They could generalize and I think satisfy some of our concerns. But I don’t understand why they’re not prepared to do it in any event.


Mercedes Stephenson: James, there’s a lot of questions about what the Prime Minister did or didn’t know, what Katie Telford did or didn’t know and at points, she seemed to say she was unaware, for example, of what had happened during that briefing to the Liberal party during the election. She wouldn’t say whether or not she had heard about it since, so, you know, if you heard those kinds of allegations, I would assume that if you’re Prime Minister’s Office, you’d start to ask questions. Who knew? Who was briefed? What happened? What was said? Do you find it odd that there’s sort of still this lack of knowledge about what was said in meetings that Katie Telford wasn’t in? Is that deliberate, do you think? Do you find that believable?


James Moore, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: Look at all the hypotheticals in your question, Mercedes, which speaks to where we’re at, right? We’ve been talking about this now for weeks. Weeks and we still don’t know even some of the basic fundamentals about where we’re at. And we’re turning the corner now into the back nine of this term of this Liberal government, heading towards the next election campaign.
And the audience for this is not Katie Telford. It’s not the Liberal party. It’s not Parliament. It’s not even parliamentarians. It’s the general public and their confidence in the next election campaign. So the fundamental sequence of questions has to be: Were the 2019 and 2021 elections interfered with? The answer seems to be very clearly: yes. Was it state sponsored? Is it systemic? Does it harm the system by which we choose our politicians? Yes or No. Are any of our politicians corrupted? And fundamentally third, is, are there actors who are manipulating our electoral system in ways either through social media or digital interference that are manipulating the public’s access to information to have a clear choice in the election campaign. These are all big questions that require answers, and the government has chosen to essentially rag the puck here and yes there are real national security implications, but by not answering just fundamental questions about the risks and the—and the clear evidence of some election interference that’s happened out there, they’re raising more and more questions which drives us to the ultimate conclusion is that we will have a public inquiry. We have to have a public inquiry so the public can feel confident that their election campaigns are not being interfered with to the extent that the outcomes are not reflective of the public’s desires.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.


Story continues below advertisement

Dick Fadden, Former National Security Advisor: Can I add a thought? You asked James whether or not—you know, why the government hadn’t been asking for more and more information? I don’t know what they asked for and I don’t know what was given, but if I was the NSA, I would not need anybody in PMO to tell me that I had a sensitive subject and to continue reporting. So I find it almost inconceivable that the various security agencies did not provide the information. I don’t know what they provided or when they provided it, but for most of the people I know in this world, they would have intuitively understand this was very sensitive and very important, and they would have found a way to report. For the reasons we talked about a few minutes ago, I think Ms. Telford doesn’t want to answer that—those specific questions. But to even leave the inference that my former colleagues, and that’s what they are now for this part of the question, did not realize this was important and needed to be kicked upstairs. I don’t think it’s practical.


Mercedes Stephenson: And if that had been kicked upstairs, in your experience when you were the national security advisor, would that have typically been briefed that sort of information to the PM’s chief of staff and the Prime Minister?


Dick Fadden, Former National Security Advisor: Anything touching the electoral process, absolutely.


Story continues below advertisement

Mercedes Stephenson: Last question to you, James. There was an interesting allegation that was raised in the middle of this by the Conservatives, by Michael Cooper. He said that Bob Saroya, a Conservative MP received a text message from the Consul-General for China in Toronto basically saying you’re going to lose the election. And that was the first time we’ve heard that. We have not seen that text. We have not been able to verify that text. I know the Conservatives for some time have been alleging that they believe that Chinese interference played a role in some of the ridings that they lost. What have you heard from your colleagues about that? Was that allegation familiar to you at all, or the more general painting around it?


James Moore, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: Former colleagues. I mean, I haven’t been a member of Parliament for a few years.


Mercedes Stephenson: Former, yeah.


James Moore, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: But no, I, you know—look, that’ll be explored over the next few days for sure because it’s a pretty—it’s a pretty damning allegation and Michael Cooper wouldn’t say that unless he had clear evidence about that. And Bob Saroya’s a very honourable guy. But look, you know, it speaks to, obviously, another anecdote of evidence of arrogance from the Chinese communist government with regard to their encroachment about what is appropriate engagement with Canada and Canadians and elected officials in the extraordinary arrogance of saying to a sitting incumbent member of Parliament that they’re not going to be elected for very long. That’s a pretty gross rhetorical engagement with a sitting member of Parliament in a way that I think deserves an explanation. Let’s not forget that the current Chinese communist government in power, the Parliament of Canada has deemed them to have engaged in genocide against the Uighur minority. The Parliament of Canada has a consensus view about some of the belligerent behaviour that the Chinese government is involved in, including the kidnapping of two Canadians and holding them hostage as a quid pro quo for the—for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou. So the Chinese government has been condemned by Parliament in multiple ways, and this kind of behaviour not checked and not called out, leads to a lot of very, I think, you know, challenging aspects of Canada’s political system going forward if this kind of interference and arrogance about it goes unchecked and uncalled by either the foreign minister or the Prime Minister directly.


Story continues below advertisement

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, certainly raises lots more questions. I’m sure we’ll be discussing them. Thank you both so much for taking the time to sit down with us on this Sunday morning, take a look at that testimony and where we’re going to head next


Dick Fadden, Former National Security Advisor: Good to be with you.


Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker breaks down the massive leak of U.S. intelligence documents and what it could mean for the war in Ukraine.


Kurt Volker, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: “What it can do is clue the Russians and others into thinking what their vulnerabilities are and how do they do a better job at closing?”


Story continues below advertisement


Mercedes Stephenson: U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has directed a review of intelligence access following a revealing leak of highly classified Pentagon documents.


A 21-year-old working as a low-ranking IT specialist with the National Air Guard in Massachusetts was arrested and charged late last week under the Espionage Act. The documents contained highly sensitive and detailed information about the state of the war in Ukraine, and top-secret intelligence about Washington’s allies and adversaries are doing.


To talk about the fallout from these leaks, I’m joined by former U.S. ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker. He also served as U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations.


Welcome back to the show. So nice to see you again.


Kurt Volker, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: Thanks Mercedes, great to be with you.


Mercedes Stephenson: This is quite the treasure trove of documents that everyone’s been digging through, just a massive, massive leak. You are someone who had a very high security clearance, so you’re able to look at these with some context. What do you think the significance of this leak is and how bad is it?


Story continues below advertisement

Kurt Volker, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: Well, several things. First off, the content of what’s been released so far is really not all that revealing and mostly tells us things we already knew. The Russian military’s in a shambles. Yeah, we knew that. The Ukrainian military is short on ammunition. Yeah, we knew that. The U.S. is in fact, spying on some of its allies. No one’s surprised by that. So these things are not all that revealing.


A couple points that have been made. One of them is on sources and methods. It’s not so much that this will necessarily expose a source, but what it can do is clue the Russians and others into thinking what their vulnerabilities are and how do they do a better job at closing them.


Another thing that comes out of this is what I call the analysis gap. We do a great job of collecting intelligence, but when you look at the quality, the analysis it’s often coming up short. And I’m reminded that, for instance, the beginning of the war last year in Ukraine when Russian accelerated its invasion, we were predicting that Ukraine would fold, Russia would roll over Ukraine in a matter of three days. Zelenskyy would flee the country and this was wildly wrong. Even though we had the data right that Russia would invade, we didn’t have the context right. That’s something that I think people ought to be concerned about because it’s playing out in these documents again. The Ukrainians are going to go on a counter offensive. We are low balling what they’re able to achieve. I think we’re going to be found wrong on that.

Story continues below advertisement


Mercedes Stephenson: Why do you think there’s that shortfall between the tremendous ability of the U.S. to gather clearly intelligence through wire taps, human sources, cyber interventions, but then this inability to interpret it accurately? Are they getting wrong intelligence or are they just not able to put into context?


Kurt Volker, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: It’s a great question, and I think it’s something our intelligence leaders should really be examining. There is some kind of inherent bias. Is it towards caution? Is it towards that things don’t ever change? Is it an assumption that Russia is stronger than it is? There are some inherent biases there. It may also have to do with the experience—the level of experience of the people who are doing the analysis in the field. Have they been out? Have they seen people? Have they talked to people? Have they done things themselves or are they too cloistered? So these are things that I think intelligence leaders ought to be asking themselves how do we make sure that our people doing intelligence analysis are as savvy and experienced as we can get?


Mercedes Stephenson: One of the things that the documents revealed is that the U.S. spies on allies. Allies are always somewhat offended by this, but when you talk to people in national security they’re like look, everybody spies on everybody. But it revealed some really interesting things about those concerns and relationships with alliances. Of course, Canada was named in there, concerns about our critical infrastructure and pipelines. And one of the things that was talked about was the presence of special forces in Ukraine, and it’s been speculated and reported on that American and other allied special forces are operating in Ukraine. We’ve reported here at Global News that Canadian special operations forces are operating in Ukraine, but I’ve always been told there’s a sensitivity around being concerned that you could be declared a combatant if they’re even there. Even though a lot of what I’m hearing is it’s kind of advisory roles at times. Do you think that there’s a danger to those special forces there now? Or is this something the Russians would have known all along?


Story continues below advertisement

Kurt Volker, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: So several comments on that. It’s a great question. First off, I’m sure the Russians already knew. So this is not revealing to them. Certainly the Ukrainians knew because we’re working with them. So that’s not a big reveal.


Secondly, I am tremendously reassured to know with certainty now that we do have some special forces teams working in the embassy, because we need those eyes and ears on the ground. We need to track the equipment and what we’re doing. We need to be talking to the Ukrainians and to do it only remotely would not be the right call. So I’m glad to see that we’re there.


And finally, the sensitivity, it’s not really a sensitivity about the Russians. It’s a sensitivity about domestic politics in the U.S., where the administration wants to make clear that there is no risk of United States directly getting involved in this war, American soldiers fighting in Ukraine. They really want to draw a bright line there. So revealing that there are American special forces there may be used by those who oppose our assistance to Ukraine, to then fear monger about oh, we might get involved in the war now.


Mercedes Stephenson: There are a lot of questions about how the young man who had access to these documents? He’s a 21-year-old reservist. He’s an IT specialist, so he’s supposed to be administering the network but it seems it turns out that if you administer the network you can also see what’s on the network and not just work around the network. The Pentagon’s announced a review. Were you surprised that somebody this junior would be able to access this amount and this sensitivity of documents and information?


Story continues below advertisement

Kurt Volker, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: Honestly, no. I’ve seen that people at, you know, very junior levels all over the place do get access to classified material. And in some ways, I think it reflects something good about our system. It shows that we trust people, but even more importantly, it shows that we know intelligence is only valuable if you’re sharing it with the people who need it to do their jobs. The problem is that we don’t have enough positive control over the intelligence itself. Who sees exactly what? Is it recorded? Are they able to download it? Are they able to print it or photograph it? There aren’t enough positive controls in place. It’d be great if we had systems like the private sector does, who are protecting security of business information, where you can see a document online but you can’t keep it.


Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that this review is going to produce something substantial, because some folks have said, look the U.S. military is so huge that in order for it to operate they do have to have junior people who can get access, because you might have someone who is a sergeant on the ground in another country having to make really critical decisions, very quickly. So to some degree, it’s hard to limit it, but on the other hand, you’re wondering the scale of the intelligence that a specialist would be able to get their hands on it, seems like, you know, is it likely there would be significant changes to how the U.S. handles information?


Story continues below advertisement

Kurt Volker, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: Yeah. So I don’t think that there’s going to be wholesale change like that. I think there will be a very stiff prosecution of this guy as a warning and signal to anyone else who might contemplate stealing information. I think they will probably have to be introduced systems who are attaching individual access to particular documents. It’s not impossible with software to do that now. So we know exactly which version of what document was seen by what individual so that we can very precisely prosecute anyone who violates that. And then probably there ought to be more firewalls or layering so that there is a little bit more of a need to know attached to what is shared.


Mercedes Stephenson: Looking forward as allies share intelligence and Canada is a net consumer of intelligence, especially American intelligence. We rely on it extensively domestically for some of our counter-terrorism operations and certainly overseas as well. It’s very difficult for Canada to operate without American help. Where do you see the future of intelligence going as we operate with increasingly sophisticated adversaries like China and Russia?


Kurt Volker, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: Right. Well we have been through lots of waves of intelligence leaks. Remember Julian Assange? Do you remember Bradley Manning and so forth? And it hasn’t changed the fact that we get great intelligence that we share intelligence. We use it. It’s an important part of the national security process that’s simply not going to change. I think some of the things that have happened in the past, we saw an increasingly reliance on signals and satellites at the expense of human intelligence. That’s started to be reversed a little bit. I think that we continue to reverse that a little bit. We need a balance of those. And I do think what we just talked about, doing a better job of maintaining positive controls in intelligence information is important for making our allies feel comfortable with sharing intelligence, because if they’re worried that the U.S. is a sieve, they’re going to be hesitant to share the most sensitive data with us and that’s simply not good for any of us.


Mercedes Stephenson: I know there is a lot of relief in Canada that it wasn’t leaked from up here, as they were trying to figure out where this came from. Kurt Volker, thank you so much for joining us.


Story continues below advertisement

Kurt Volker, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: Thank you so much for having me.


Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, is Canadian politics getting too toxic?




Mercedes Stephenson: Now for one last thing…


The House is back tomorrow and with it comes the debates, the heckling and the barbs. But it feels like the tone has changed. From principled positions passionately debating big ideas and looking for solutions, along with witty repartee, to a race to the bottom. Personal attacks, juvenile insults and hardened partisan positions more interested in scoring points than in thoughtful policy debates.

Story continues below advertisement


Pierre Poilievre, Opposition Leader: “Well if the Prime Minister really was interested in protecting national security, he wouldn’t be hiding. He’d stand up right now and answer the question. Instead, he hides behind these two stooges who protect him.”


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The snarkiness with which the leader of the Official Opposition is approaching these serious issues doesn’t do him any credit and it doesn’t do credit to the kind of serious discussions need to be had.”



Mercedes Stephenson: There was a time when politicians would answer questions instead of repeating memorized talking points that often aren’t even related to the original question.


Most people who run for politics do it for the right reasons: a desire to better the country. But in a time of snarky tweets, drive-by smears and a seeming race to the bottom, it’s no wonder Canadians are tuning out.


That’s our show for today. Thanks for hanging out with us and we’ll see you next Sunday.

Sponsored content