Warnings of Election Meddling by China Never Reached the Prime Minister

It can be a bit difficult to keep tabs on the various inquiries and examinations into foreign interference in Canadian elections, particularly by China.

Ottawa’s latest growth industry was largely created by a series of leaks of highly classified intelligence that first appeared in The Globe and Mail, and then Global News, that described attempts by the Chinese government to meddle in the last two elections with the goal of returning the Liberals to power, if again with a minority government.

First was a report from a group of senior civil servants that found that while China, Russia and Iran had tried to subvert the 2019 and 2021 federal votes, their efforts had failed.

Next, David Johnston, the former governor general, looked at the body of evidence that produced the leak. Mr. Johnston stepped down before finishing his inquiry after the opposition argued that his close ties to the Trudeau family meant that his assessment would not be independent. But, in a preliminary report, he concluded that foreign powers were “undoubtedly attempting to influence candidates and voters in Canada.” But Mr. Johnston added that, after looking at everything, he found that “several leaked materials that raised legitimate questions turn out to have been misconstrued in some media reports, presumably because of the lack of this context.”

At the end of March, a committee of Parliamentarians who had been cleared to review classified intelligence turned over its election interference report to the government. The censored, public version of its findings has yet to be released.

And a month ago, the public inquiry into interference reluctantly set up by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after repeated calls from the opposition said in its initial report that there was no evidence that the last two elections had been subverted. But it also noted that “some Canadians have now reduced trust in Canada’s democratic process,” adding that “this is perhaps the greatest harm Canada has suffered as a result of foreign interference.”

The redacted report released this week by an independent watchdog agency looked at the issue from a different perspective. The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency examined what Canada’s spy services and the government did with intelligence about election meddling by China.

One of its perhaps startling findings is that most of the material never reached Mr. Trudeau or members of his cabinet.

The panel discovered several roadblocks. Within the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, or CSIS, it found that the spy agency faced a dilemma.

“On one hand, information about foreign interference in elections was a priority for the government and CSIS had geared its collection apparatus toward investigating political foreign interference,” the report said. “On the other, CSIS was sensitive to the possibility that the collection and dissemination of intelligence about elections could itself be construed as a form of election interference.”

But when it did try to bring material to the government’s attention, its reports were not always welcome. The review body found that when CSIS produced two overviews on Chinese election interference in 2021, the national security and intelligence adviser — a public service rather than political post that changed hands several times that year — considered them to to contain little more than a “recounting standard diplomatic activity.” The reports were not passed along to the prime minister or the cabinet.

“What’s really astounding is that the kinds of reports that were not getting to the prime minister were exactly the sort of reports we should have been getting to him,” Wesley Wark, who studies Canada’s intelligence systems at The Centre for International Governance Innovation, told me. “I think it demonstrates a huge problem in the Canadian system.”

Mr. Wark said that situation had developed in part because the spy agency has traditionally attempted to pass along nearly every piece of intelligence it picks up rather than emphasizing analytical reports. He said that those small “tidbits” probably should not be passed along to politicians, but that their proliferation appears to have also blocked analytical, or strategic, reports.

“These kinds of strategic assessments are precisely what the British and Australians and Americans do with intelligence,” he said. “But we don’t seem to be good at that. And that’s a problem that has to be fixed.”

The responsibility for that fix, he added, rests with the senior levels of the public service, not the intelligence agencies.

The report issued this week offers nothing about exactly what China did, or tried to do, during the last two elections, though it did caution that intelligence “does not constitute proof that the described activities took place, or took place in the manner suggested by the source(s) of the information.”

Mr. Wark noted that Justice Marie-Josée Hogue, who is heading the public inquiry, has carefully avoided weighing in on the veracity of the leaked information. He said he did not anticipate that that would change in the coming months.

“So we don’t know more and probably never will,” he said.

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A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for over two decades. Follow him on Bluesky at @ianausten.bsky.social

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