The RCMP says it wasn’t able to run a criminal investigation into allegations of foreign interference in the 2021 election because intelligence reports don’t always translate into evidence — something that has been a long-standing source of tension in the national security world.
On Thursday Michael Duheme, a deputy commissioner of the RCMP, fielded questions from MPs about why there are no active RCMP investigations underway into the last election.
“We are not investigating any elements from the 2019 or the 2021 elections. We did not receive any actionable intelligence that would warrant us to initiate a criminal investigation,” said Duheme, who oversees federal policing.
“No charges have been laid.”
His testimony touched on the perennial problem of “intelligence to evidence” — the gap between the information intelligence agencies have and what police forces need for prosecutions.
The problem has come to the fore as MPs probe claims — from media reports relying on intelligence leaks — that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its agents are behind a campaign of foreign interference in Canadian politics.
Citing classified Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) sources, the Globe and Mail and Global News have published stories alleging China tried to ensure that the Liberals won a minority government in the last general election. The newspaper also published reports saying Beijing worked to defeat Conservative candidates who were critical of China.
Global News reported that CSIS had gone so far as to urge senior Liberal Party officials to revoke Han Dong’s nomination in a Toronto riding in 2019, where he is the current MP.
As former CSIS director Richard Fadden told CBC’s Front Burner, CSIS, police and the legal system have different mandates.
“This is all based on our charter rights and our rights in the Criminal Code to protect people from overtly facile, overly easy investigations by the police. They need to have their standard met, not CSIS’s standard met,” he said.
“Intelligence agencies — not just CSIS but intelligence agencies around the world — collect a lot of intelligence and a lot of it is not used because it doesn’t reach the bar of being convincing enough from the perspective of those professional standards.”
Fadden still said that, given the recent reporting, he is somewhat surprised at the lack of an investigation.
“If everything that was written by your colleagues in the media is taken as accurate, I’m a little bit surprised that there’s not something there,” he said.
The trouble with intelligence sources
Stephanie Carvin, a security expert and professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics on Wednesday that intelligence reports rely on sources of information that can’t always be trusted or confirmed.
“It can give you a picture of what’s going on but sources don’t always give you the 100 per cent truth, and that’s something we have to keep in mind,” Carvin said.
“Sources are human. They can get things wrong, they can report rumours, they can lie,” she said. “People who are being wiretapped may know that they are being wiretapped, so they can say things that are trying to deliberately mislead people.”
Carvin said it’s not clear whether the intelligence information cited in the media reports comes from single sources or is based on multiple sources that have been cross-referenced.
Intelligence is not truth– Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs David Morrison
“We’re getting the information that’s in these reports, but the information isn’t evidence. It may not be 100 per cent true and we should read them with a critical eye,” she said.
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs David Morrison, who served on an independent panel to monitor incidents that could have threatened the 2021 election’s integrity, said intelligence gathered by CSIS and other national security bodies “rarely paints a full or concrete or actionable picture.”
“Intelligence is not truth,” he told Thursday’s committee.
“It is often inaccurate or partial or incomplete, or in fact designed to throw us off our track.”
CSIS head cites ongoing ‘challenges’
While it’s not clear what intelligence was passed to the RCMP about claims that Beijing interfered in Canadian elections, the information-sharing relationship between CSIS and the RCMP has been problematic.
A 2021 report by the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, one of the country’s intelligence watchdogs, said flaws in the way Canada’s spy agency and the national police force share information are stalling investigations.
“Despite frequent verbal exchanges between CSIS and RCMP headquarters, CSIS’s formal disclosures of information have been very limited and not always useful,” said the NSIRA report.
“Frontline RCMP investigators derive little benefit from CSIS’s work.”
WATCH | Reports on election interference are ‘rumours’: deputy minister of Foreign Affairs
Reports on election interference are ‘rumours’: deputy minister of Foreign Affairs
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs David Morrison told MPs on the procedure and House affairs committee that intelligence reports ‘rarely paint a full or concrete or actionable picture’ as he disparaged media reports about foreign interference in elections.
CSIS director David Vigneault told a parliamentary committee on Thursday that since his agency was founded in 1984, “elaborate processes” have been developed to help the RCMP and CSIS share information.
“I think the committee has heard some of the challenges that exist in using intelligence and passing it on to law enforcement agencies or investigative bodies because intelligence is not a question of evidence,” Vigneault said.
He said that the process for sharing intelligence information remains complex and is the subject of discussions between CSIS, the RCMP and the Department of Justice.
“The notion of using intelligence to pursue law enforcement matters continues to be a challenge that a number of organizations are actively working on,” Vigneault told the committee.
“But we do have robust process with the RCMP and with other investigative bodies to do such an exchange.”
The federal government has been warned in the past that failing to address questions about intelligence-sharing could put a number of national security court cases at risk and undermine Ottawa’s national security efforts.
Another CSIS official said in recent days legislative changes may be needed.
“I would suggest the government has been wrestling with [this] for some time now and it’s not just in Canada,” said Adam Fisher, director general of intelligence assessments at CSIS.
“Our colleagues at Public Safety certainly have this on their plate.”