The unanswered question at the heart of David Johnston’s foreign interference report

Click to play video: 'Alleged foreign interference: Johnston to testify before parliamentary committee'
Alleged foreign interference: Johnston to testify before parliamentary committee
WATCH: Johnston to testify before parliamentary committee – May 25, 2023

David Johnston says his decision to recommend against a public inquiry into foreign interference was based on “unprecedented” access to raw intelligence, Canadian national security officials and their political masters.

But virtually everyone asked to accept Johnston’s findings will not – and cannot – ever know exactly what evidence Johnston based that recommendation on.

This is just one lingering but vital unanswered question at the heart of Johnston’s 53-page report, released Tuesday, which took aim at the media reporting – chiefly by Global News and the Globe and Mail – that led Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to appoint Johnston as a special rapporteur on foreign interference.

“I recognize this report, its conclusions, would be met with skepticism by some, especially by those who in good faith have worked to raise legitimate questions around these issues,” Johnston told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday.

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“The challenge is this: what has allowed me to determine whether there has in fact been interference cannot be disclosed publicly. A public review of classified intelligence simply cannot be done.”

It’s an opinion likely to be challenged when Johnston appears before a House of Commons committee next month to discuss his report.

While Johnston’s report has given the Liberal government space to attempt to move on from the issue, Johnston’s inability to show his work – to publicly explain what information led him to his conclusions – means the “skepticism” about his findings is likely to continue.

What evidence did Johnston base his conclusions on?

Trudeau appointed Johnston on March 15 and gave the former governor general two months to release a preliminary report into foreign interference in Canada. Johnston’s review primarily focused on foreign interference “in Canada’s electoral processes as reported in the media,” and the government’s response to those incidents.

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His team reviewed publicly available information, such as House of Commons committee testimony, but also highly classified intelligence and analysis, according to the report. Johnston’s team also received classified briefings and interviews with senior national security officials, including the heads of both Canada’s domestic spy service, CSIS, and the country’s electronic surveillance agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).

After reviewing that material, Johnston concluded none of it could be released publicly.

“Foreign adversaries would readily discern sources and methods from this information. It could endanger people,” Johnston’s report read.

Click to play video: 'Johnston given ‘complete access’ to documents, officials: Trudeau'
Johnston given ‘complete access’ to documents, officials: Trudeau

This is a common angle in Canada’s national security community. While some officials and agencies have attempted to be more public about security threats in recent years, information on sources and methods are closely, and understandably, guarded.

But while Johnston tells us in general who and what his sources are, his report does not directly quote those sources or provide the evidence he’s using to support his arguments. It’s also impossible to say from Johnston’s report the nature of Canadian intelligence on foreign interference, or how in-depth Canadian authorities investigate that activity.

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“Johnston was tasked with reviewing all the available intelligence and looking at the allegations in the media, and he was very thorough … But that actually doesn’t tell us what was or was not investigated,” said Jessica Davis, a former Canadian intelligence official who now runs security consulting firm Insight Intelligence.

Davis pointed to the $250,000 alleged to have been directed by the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) consulate in Toronto to 11 candidates in the 2019 election – an allegation first reported by Global News. Johnston’s report found that while there was intelligence indicating the PRC intended to provide the money to the candidates – seven Liberals and four Conservatives – there is no intelligence indicating the candidates actually received the money.

“But he doesn’t tell us how deep that investigation went,” Davis said. “So was there sufficient information to warrant an investigation, or was it just someone randomly saying something? … Did they actually go so far as to get warrants on people’s bank accounts?”

“There’s a whole different level of investigation that could be taking place that we just don’t know about. So it could have just been dismissed out of hand, or it could have been properly investigated, and we just have no visibility on that whatsoever. And that’s true for the entire foreign interference investigations,” Davis added.

Just how bad is the federal government at sharing intelligence?

Another key question is who knew what, and what they did about it. But an even more important, if less exciting question emerged from his findings: how, exactly, is intelligence shared within the government and with ministers responsible for making the actual decisions?

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Johnston found serious problems with the “machinery of government” when it came to the sharing of relevant intelligence with key decision-makers. In one of his more shocking anecdotes, Johnston reported that the minister of public safety – who is responsible for Canada’s spy agency and national police force – does not have access to the Top Secret Network that security officials use to transmit sensitive intelligence.

Both Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and his chief of staff told Johnston they don’t have access to the Top Secret Network, and if CSIS wanted to “transmit sensitive information, they would request a briefing, take him to a secure facility and show it to him.”

Johnston’s report suggests that’s how CSIS’s warning that PRC officials were targeting Conservative MP Michael Chong’s family was missed – it was sent over the Top Secret Network, and Mendicino indicated he didn’t receive it.

Click to play video: 'MP Michael Chong testifies on allegations China targeted family, was unaware until news report'
MP Michael Chong testifies on allegations China targeted family, was unaware until news report

Even if intelligence officials send analysis or reports to a department like Public Safety or Global Affairs Canada, there “is no guarantee it makes it to someone whose responsibility it is to wade through the enormous volume of intelligence that comes out every week and ensure the right people see it, or that someone has accountability to respond to it,” Johnston concluded.

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“Mr. Chong stated that the failure to notify him that his family might be targeted amounted to a ‘systemic breakdown in the machinery of government.’ It certainly is the most prominent, but not the only, example of poor information flow and processing between agencies, the public service and ministers,” the report read.

What is a “network,” anyway?

While relying on confidential intelligence and interviews with national security officials, Johnston’s report takes aim at media reporting about Beijing’s interference operations on Canadian soil. Those media reports also relied on confidential intelligence documents and interviews with national security sources.

A Global News report in November 2022 asserted the PRC consulate funded a “clandestine network” that included at least 11 candidates in the 2019 election – and earmarking $250,000 to fund their campaigns – Johnston found “limited intelligence” that the PRC consulate “intended for funds to be sent to seven Liberal and four Conservative federal candidates through a community organization, political staff and (possibly unwittingly) a Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario MPP.”

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Johnston found that the PRC also has used “proxy agents” to try and influence “numerous Liberal and Conservative candidates in subtle ways,” but that there is no evidence that the 11 candidates referenced in the intelligence were working as a “network.”

Click to play video: 'Johnston recommends public hearings on foreign interference allegations'
Johnston recommends public hearings on foreign interference allegations

On the Globe and Mail’s February 2022 report that “an orchestrated machine” was operating ahead of the 2021 election to try to re-elect a Liberal minority, Johnston found “no indication that the PRC had a plan to orchestrate a Liberal government in 2021 or were ‘determined’ that the Conservatives not win.”

However, Johnston did find evidence that “the PRC’s intention appears to be focused on assisting pro-China candidates and marginalizing anti-China candidates, not party preferences.”

In relation to both reports, Johnston does not specify what information he relied on to come to those conclusions.

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But even presented as criticism of the media reporting, Johnston’s report is some of the most detailed publicly-available evidence yet about Beijing’s intentions and methods for attempting to covertly influence Canadian politics.

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa, as well as spokespeople for China’s foreign service, have repeatedly and implausibly denied interfering in Canadian affairs.

Where do we go from here?

Johnston’s decision to recommend against a public inquiry is not the end of his work – his report suggested he intends to conduct “public hearings” on foreign interference over the next several months, including hearing from diaspora communities that are often the subjects of foreign harassment and coercion. Johnston intends to release a second report based on those conversations.

But the conclusions in his first report did little to stem the tide of calls for a public inquiry – including from opposition parties. The Conservatives announced Wednesday that they would seek Johnston’s testimony at a House of Commons committee that has been probing the foreign interference issue for months.

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Johnston’s call to have opposition leaders given top-secret clearance in order to review the “confidential annex” of his report – which includes snippets of the intelligence and information he used to come to his conclusions – has already been rejected by Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet.

The two leaders suggested having access to sensitive intelligence would prevent them from criticizing the government’s handling of the foreign interference file. Poilievre suggested such a briefing would be a “trap,” swearing him to secrecy and preventing him from attacking the government – a position that is, at least, debatable.

Click to play video: 'Poilievre calls Canada’s special rapporteur ‘fake job,’ says he won’t meet with Johnston'
Poilievre calls Canada’s special rapporteur ‘fake job,’ says he won’t meet with Johnston

The Canadian Press reported Thursday that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has requested assurances from Trudeau that receiving the clearance would not inhibit his ability to criticize the Liberal government.

The opposition’s immediate reaction to Johnston’s report – and their insistence that a public inquiry be held anyway – suggests those hoping the debate around foreign interference be “de-politicized” will continue to be disappointed.

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“What we need desperately right now is to try and take the partisanship out of this conversation, and the decision to not hold a public inquiry, all that did in my mind is perpetuate that deeply partisan divide that’s out there,” Artur Wilczynski, a former senior official at the Communications Security Establishment, told Global News in a recent interview. “Which in my view is even more damaging to Canadian democratic institutions than anything else.”

– with files from The Canadian Press

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