Why Canada’s protections from foreign meddling in elections may be an ‘incomplete project’


Earlier this week, a panel of senior public servants released a report concluding that while there were attempts to interfere with the 2021 federal election, those attempts did not affect the results.

That panel, which oversees the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol (CEIPP), was created in 2019 as part of a series of measures taken by the federal government to combat the threat of foreign influence on Canada’s election process.

Those initiatives — which also included the establishment of an election threat task force consisting of Canada’s top security agencies — have been greeted with praise by some security experts.

But others say much more needs to be done to prevent foreign meddling in Canadian elections.

‘An incomplete project’

“Canada already does a fair bit to counter foreign interference,” said Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. “But I do think that we could do more, and that we should do more.”

Last year, for example, Canada’s cyber spy agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), said in its annual report that it had launched a defensive operation to protect the 2021 federal election — including the party leaders’ debate — from disruption by foreign agencies. 

The operation was designed to disrupt hostile cyber activity aimed at the voting system, as well as to protect political parties from foreign interference, the agency said.

“I think what we’ve done so far, it’s a start,” said Dennis Molinaro, a professor of legal studies at Ontario Tech University and a former national security analyst. “But it’s really an incomplete project.”

“Our measures should be useful enough that it is deterring activity. But what we are seeing instead is that activity at least appears to be, and from what we’re seeing, is increasing. That’s the opposite of what we want.”

The issue has become a recent hot-button topic on Parliament Hill following media reports alleging foreign interference in federal elections. The Globe and Mail reported last week that secret and top-secret documents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) said Beijing sought to ensure a Liberal minority government and the defeat of several Conservative candidates in 2021.

WATCH: Conservatives support a public inquiry into election interference allegations

Conservatives support a public inquiry into election interference allegations

Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre says his party is calling for an ‘independent and public’ inquiry into reports that Beijing targeted or supported Liberal candidates during the 2019 and 2021 elections.

On Wednesday, the Conservatives and the NDP called for a public inquiry into allegations that China interfered in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

“We definitely have a foreign interference problem in Canada,” tweeted Jessica Davis, president at Insight Threat Intelligence and a former CSIS senior strategic analyst. “We lack sufficient enforcement of existing laws.”

“It’s unclear who the ultimate person responsible for this is in Canada,” she tweeted. “It could be useful to consider the idea of some sort of foreign influence champion/deputy minister/anyone who will be accountable on this issue.”

Juneau said that after the 2016 U.S. election, and reports of large-scale intervention, there was fear that Canada needed to take the issue more seriously.

“That was a wake-up call,” he said.

Elections Canada workers place signage at the Halifax Convention Centre as they prepare for the polls to open in the federal election in Halifax on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021.

Canada’s cyber spy agency, the Communications Security Establishment, said in its annual report that it had launched a defensive operation to protect the 2021 federal election. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Part of that wake-up call was the federal government’s Plan to Protect Canada’s Democracy. That plan included the creation of SITE, a task force comprised of CSIS, CSE, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Global Affairs Canada (GAC).

“The task force brings together different agencies and departments to share information, to pool it, and then assess that information at the time of an election,” Juneau said.

SITE has met regularly since 2019 and now meets on a monthly basis with the rate of meetings accelerating as the election gets closer, according to the CEIPP report. During the 2021 election, for example, SITE met on a daily basis.

‘Breakdown happening in the process’

But Molinaro believes that SITE’s ability to protect elections has been somewhat exaggerated.

He questioned the secrecy of the task force, how much it knew about the allegations of election interference and whether members of the different intelligence agencies were actually feeding the task force information.

“Because the Conservatives have come out and said they didn’t see anything in terms of what’s been presented in the media, at SITE,” Molinaro said.

“So that then begs the question of why. If that’s how the process is supposed to work, then there’s a breakdown happening in the process.”

WATCH: Trudeau’s national security adviser attends hearing on election interference 

Top security adviser grilled over foreign meddling in Canadian elections

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser was among the public officials grilled by MPs about Chinese meddling in Canadian democracy. Jody Thomas declined to provide specifics, but told MPs Beijing represents the ‘greatest threat.’

In 2019, the government also established the CEIPP, led by a panel of five senior public servants, to work with SITE and determine whether interference in the election had passed a certain threshold that required notification of the public.

But Juneau said the role of the CEIPP raises some troubling questions.

“If you think about this, that’s hugely problematic because you would have unelected civil servants who publicly take a position on an extremely political matter during an election period,” Juneau said. 

He acknowledged it would be more problematic for the government of the day to make such a call, meaning the CEIPP is the “least bad solution.”

That means their threshold to make such a public call needs to be “very high,” he said.

But if the bar is too high, said Molinaro, that’s not helpful either.

“Especially when there are legitimate problems that are being reported on, that are popping up in the press and you are maintaining that everything’s fine according to the extremely high bar that you set.”

Juneau said one of the more pressing problems, however, is that government agencies are just not equipped well enough to deal with such threats. 

“When I say that, I mean at two levels. I mean, at the level of resources, which is basically money and human beings,he said. “But also at the level of the tools, the legislative and regulatory tools that they have at their disposal.”

Foreign agent registry

One of those tools Canada lacks, he said, is a foreign agent registry. The U.S. and Australia have foreign agent registries that require those acting on behalf of a foreign state to register their activities.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump debates Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.

Reports of election meddling in the 2016 U.S. election were a wake-up call for the Canadian government. (Mark Ralson/The Associated Press)

CSIS Director David Vigneault said at a recent appearance at a parliamentary committee, that while such a registry wouldn’t be the only tool needed, it would be a useful measure to improve transparency.

“By requiring people to declare their affiliation publicly, such a registry would effectively increase transparency,” he said. “It might force people who want to commit these acts of foreign interference to use more resources, which might make it more difficult for them to do so.”

Molinaro agreed that a measure that would compel people to register or face prosecution would create a disincentive for people to act on behalf of their state. 

“There’s a fear there ‘I might get caught. I could go to jail. So it’s not worth it to me.'”

 WATCH: Mendicino looking into ‘foreign agent registry’ to combat foreign interference in elections

Mendicino looking into ‘foreign agent registry’ to combat foreign interference in elections

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino says his office is looking to ‘expand the tool kit’ in response to reports of foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections.

On Thursday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said his office is looking into creating such a registry.

However, Juneau said that government transparency may be what’s needed most to deal with foreign election interference.

“The way that the government has dealt with issues of foreign interference for too long now, but before now, too, has been more or less a version of ‘you need to trust us on this.’ And that doesn’t work,” he said. 

By not being transparent, the government is preventing society as a whole from gaining the awareness that is necessary to defend against that [threat],” Juneau said.

“Because right now the lack of transparency is eroding trust in institutions and democratic institutions. That’s a disaster.”

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