The threat from foreign interference, with Beijing as the main culprit, has evolved to become more dangerous to the state than traditional espionage, a former executive with Canada’s spy agency told MPs.
“What we’ve seen, in the last 30 years, is that foreign interference has eclipsed classic espionage as a national security threat, both in terms of its scope and its speed,” said Dan Stanton, a 32-year veteran of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
“Why risk stealing another state’s secrets when you can influence and manipulate the targeted countries policymakers, you can get close to what we consider the soft underbelly of the state through our democratic institutions.”
Stanton was testifying before the House of Commons ethics committee on March 31 as part of its study on foreign interference.
The CSIS veteran who left the agency in 2017 said that espionage was the “all-consuming threat” during the Cold War, but that things changed after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Stanton said that espionage is “high risk,” “very difficult to do against hard targets,” and people need to commit treason, whereas it is easier to conduct foreign influence.
The committee study comes after months of revelations in the media stemming from national security leaks that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interfered in past elections.
The Trudeau government has rejected calls for a public inquiry and instead appointed former governor general David Johnston to study the matter.
There has been fallout from the leaks with two allegedly implicated elected officials leaving their party caucuses.
MP Han Dong left the Liberal caucus on March 22 after it was alleged by Global News he advised Beijing to keep Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in jail. He said he would step back to clear his name and announced a few days after he planned to sue Global.
Ontario MPP Vincent Ke resigned from the Progressive Conservative caucus on March 10 after Global reported he was a financial intermediary in the CCP’s foreign interference network. He called the report false and defamatory and also said he was stepping back to clear his name.
This alleged interference affecting different parties is something Stanton stressed during his testimony, saying that past governments have also treated the threat with indifference.
The CSIS veteran said he worked the the People’s Republic of China (PRC) file for many years, also serving as the national program manager for a time.
“It was a different government at the time and the reaction to foreign interference reporting … was no different than it was today,” he said.
‘A-Team’ of Foreign Interference
Stanton called the PRC the “A-Team” and the most sophisticated foreign interference threat.
He says its “confidence bordering on arrogance” has made Beijing “probably the most daunting threat from a foreign intelligence perspective.”
“While China continues to play chess, Canada plays whack-a-mole. We need to raise our game.”
Some MPs on the committee sought to have Stanton address foreign interference threats from other actors, with NDP MP Matthew Green expressing concerns that “we may miss the broader picture.”
Stanton briefly mentioned activities by Iran, Russia, and India, but kept the focus on the PRC.
“I think we’re solely focused on China, because it is, as I said, the A-Team when it comes to foreign interference, there is absolutely no comparison in terms of scope and qualitative differences,” he said.
Liberal MP Parm Bains asked Stanton if there are additional actors to be mindful of.
“I understand you’ve said that China is number one, they’re the A-Team, but are there others that are maybe developing a little bit more?” he said.
“No, there aren’t a lot of others” that fall under the CSIS Act threat definition, Stanton replied.
Stanton commented on the various initiatives currently in progress to tackle foreign interference and lamented the approach or slow pace.
He remarked there’s already Bill S-237 in the Senate to create a foreign influence registry, hence he doesn’t see the purpose of going the consultation way the Trudeau government has chosen.
“Why don’t we just move it to the House of Commons, instead of going across the country and having town halls to see what people think of it?,” said Stanton.
Public Safety Marco Mendicino announced on March 10 the government was launching consultation on creating a registry, amidst mounting pressure from the leaks in the media.
Mendicino had said a few weeks earlier Canada needs to be “thoughtful and inclusive” in creating the registry.
Stanton also criticized providing the RCMP with additional funding to counter foreign interference without establishing a better strategy.
The latest budget earmarks $49 million over three years for the federal police force to tackle the matter.
Stanton says throwing more money at the problem isn’t the solution if there is no accompanying investigative or prosecution strategies. Instead, the government should renew its national security to address the changing threat landscape, he said.
“Every time we’ve had a crisis, every time we’ve had an incident, that’s what the government’s done, we’ll throw money at the RCMP, we’ll say ‘you folks, you’ve got to sort that out,’ and I don’t think that’s really an appropriate response.”