Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged his government hasn’t always listened to recommendations on foreign election interference from one of its intelligence review bodies.
His comments came Monday night as he tasked the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) with once again reviewing the issue of foreign interference in Canada, with a special eye on election meddling.
That body released a report back in 2019 that urged Ottawa to take the threat of foreign interference more seriously.
“Canada has been slow to react to the threat of foreign interference,” wrote the committee in a 2019 report looking at the government’s response to foreign meddling.
“The government must do better.”
That report was submitted to the prime minister on Aug. 30, 2019, before the fall election that would deliver him a minority government. But it wasn’t made public until March 2020.
“The committee did not receive an official response regarding the recommendations in that report,” said the NSICOP secretariat in an email to CBC News Monday.
An apparently frustrated NSICOP has since called out the government publicly for shrugging off its recommendations.
The committee’s warnings take on a new light when compared to new allegations of foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
“We have to do a better job on following up on those recommendations. I fully accept that,” Trudeau told a news conference Monday night.
He announced he’s asked Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc and the Clerk of the Privy Council to bring forward a plan to implement any outstanding recommendations from NSICOP reports in the next 30 days.
Past report says MPs are being targeted
The 2019 NSICOP report into foreign interference states that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has conducted investigations and provided advice to government on foreign interference. The report says elected and public officials across all levels of government are being targeted, including MPs, senators, members of provincial legislatures, municipal officials and representatives of Indigenous governments.
The NSICOP committee was set up in 2017 to provide parliamentary oversight of Ottawa’s intelligence operations, including at CSIS, the RCMP, Global Affairs Canada and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).
MPs and senators on the committee receive security clearance permitting them to see and hear details of the agencies’ highly secret activities.
WATCH | PM admits he has to do better at reviewing NSICOP recommendations
PM admits he has to do better at reviewing NSICOP recommendations
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he has tasked Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc with reviewing the agency’s recommendations on foreign election interference and drafting a response to their report.
NSICOP’s 2019 report called out what it called a piecemeal approach to foreign interference. The committee reported that even organizations within the security and intelligence community differ on how they understand the gravity and frequency of foreign interference.
“Reactions to foreign interference remain ad hoc and case-specific, rarely putting them in their broader context,” says the report.
“The threat is real, if often hidden. If it is not addressed in a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach, foreign interference will slowly erode the foundations of our fundamental institutions, including our system of democracy itself.”
The report calls on the government to develop a comprehensive strategy to counter foreign interference, address “institutional vulnerabilities” targeted by hostile foreign states and review Canada’s security and intelligence legislation, among other things.
Responding to questions from CBC News about the government’s response to those recommendations, the NSICOP secretariat said the committee’s members have urged the government to act on their work.
Their most recent annual report, made public last fall, says the committee “encourages the government to respond to the recommendations of the committee’s seven previous reviews of critical issues in the security and intelligence community, including … the absence of a whole-of-government strategy to address foreign interference in Canada.
“In the coming year, the committee will engage with organizations implicated in the committee’s earlier reviews to determine whether they accept the committee’s recommendations and what actions have been taken to respond to them.”
Government has no obligation to listen: prof
Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said the process should be reformed so that the federal government has to respond to its findings within a set time period.
“The government would come out with a response saying, ‘These are the next steps that we are going to take,’ and then in the future, the media and civil society, as well as the opposition, could hold the government to account on the basis of its response,” he said.
“But so far, there is no such obligation, which means that in many cases, NSICOP, they are not acted on or not followed up on.”
Trudeau told a news conference Monday evening that, in the coming days, he will name an “eminent” and independent person as a special rapporteur on election interference, “who will have a wide mandate and make expert recommendations on combating interference and strengthening our democracy.”
Trudeau’s announcement comes during a heated debate in Ottawa over how to handle the issue. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre have been pushing the idea of an open inquiry on foreign election interference.
Trudeau said the rapporteur could recommend a formal inquiry.
“And we will abide by their recommendation,” he said.
Last month, the Globe and Mail reported that China employed a “sophisticated strategy to disrupt Canada’s democracy” in the 2021 election campaign as Chinese diplomats and their proxies “backed the re-election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.”
Back in the fall, Global News reported intelligence officials warned Trudeau that China’s consulate in Toronto floated cash to at least eleven federal election candidates “and numerous Beijing operatives” who worked as campaign staffers.
Trudeau and the head of Canada’s intelligence agency have acknowledged that China attempted to interfere in the past two federal elections. They maintain the elections’ overall outcomes were not altered.