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Former senior intelligence executives in Canada’s two main collection agencies have come out against the key recommendation of the special rapporteur on foreign interference, telling MPs that a public inquiry needs to be held to restore confidence in the country’s institution.
“I wish to see the government, and more particularly and respectfully, the prime minister, reconsider the decision not to have a public inquiry,” said Dan Stanton, a former Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) executive.
Stanton was testifying before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) on May 30, alongside Artur Wilczynski, a former assistant deputy minister with the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).
Stanton criticized some aspects of the report tabled by Special Rapporteur David Johnston on May 23, which recommended against holding an inquiry, citing the need to protect classified information.
Johnston was appointed rapporteur by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on March 15 and put the onus on him to determine whether to hold an inquiry.
Johnston said in his report he found no evidence that the Liberal government had been negligent in addressing the threat posed by foreign interference, but that there were serious shortcomings in getting intelligence to policymakers.
“How can there not be indications of a failure to act on intelligence warnings when decision makers and public safety and a number of national security intelligence advisors never saw or were unable to access the reports?” Stanton told the committee.
It was revealed through media, public comments from elected officials, and the Johnston report, that senior levels of government didn’t learn about Beijing’s threats against MPs flagged by CSIS.
The 2021 CSIS assessment warning of the threat was sent to the office of the National Security and Intelligence Advisor inside the Privy Council Office, but never briefed to the prime minister. CSIS also sent a memo on the issue in May 2021 to the public safety minister over a secure email system, but the minister didn’t have the credentials to access it.
‘Against my DNA’
Stanton, who is currently director of the national security program at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute, said it was “odd” for someone with his background to be in favour of calling for a public inquiry.
“It’s kind of against my DNA in a way,” he said. “But it’s just my mind tells me that that’s the best route to go right now because I don’t think a lot of people want to wait a couple years.”
He also suggested that an inquiry might put an end to the national security leaks that have appeared in the media since November and spurred committee studies and the creation of the special rapporteur position.
The former CSIS officer says that he initially was opposed to holding an inquiry for security reasons, but his opinion changed in recent weeks with more leaks surfacing in the media.
“I keep thinking there may still be some negligence,” he said, adding that he thinks “Canadians are increasingly wondering what’s going on.”
“That’s why I want a public inquiry because I want Canadians to regain that trust in their institutions.”
Stanton worked for 32 years with CSIS, included in its counterintelligence program, and dismissed some of the arguments against holding an inquiry.
He called the threat of foreign interference “low hanging fruit” compared to espionage and that it isn’t as sensitive. “So there’s not going to be that much coming out that’s going to shake Western civilization,” he said.
Stanton added that Canada’s intelligence partnership with the Five Eyes group, comprising the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, won’t be affected by holding a public inquiry on the matter.
“The Five Eyes are not like the Eye of Sauron, looking down at our public inquiry with grave concerns,” he said, pointing to precedents like the inquiry into the Air India Flight 182 bombing.
Artur Wilczynski, who directed intelligence operations at CSE, agrees with Stanton that there are processes that can be established for reviewing classified information during an inquiry and the Five Eyes partners understand the importance of transparency in that area.
“It’s not an issue of security classification of documents, it has to do with political will,” said Wilczynski.
He said trust needs to be restored by holding an inquiry presided by a former judge “where there is absolutely no issue to the credibility or reliability of that individual.”
The Conservative Party and the Bloc Québécois have questioned the impartiality of Johnston to lead the review, given he is a Trudeau family friend and was a former member of the Trudeau Foundation.
Until recently, the NDP had not criticized Johnston’s appointment, with leader Jagmeet Singh previously calling him a “trustworthy” man of “integrity.”
But the party changed its tone on May 29 with Singh announcing the filing of a motion asking Johnston to resign from his post.
“It is very clear that the appearance of bias is so high that it erodes the work that the special rapporteur can do,” Singh said, noting that Johnston’s key advisor is a reported Liberal Party donor.
Johnston downplayed his links to the Trudeau family and concerns about his membership in the foundation when he tabled his report on May 23.
He said throughout his public life, which includes an appointment as governor general by former prime minister Stephen Harper, his impartiality or integrity has never been questioned.
“This is the first time that has happened, and let me simply say that’s very troubling for me because this kind of baseless set of accusations diminishes trust in our public institutions,” he said.
The NDP motion was tabled in the House on May 30 by MP Jenny Kwan. Kwan was recently briefed by CSIS and says she was told she is an “evergreen candidate” for targeting by Beijing due to her advocacy for human rights in China.
Peter Wilson and Matthew Horwood contributed to this report.