Spread the love

Senior officials considered warning public of foreign interference in 2021

Photo: Sean Kilpatrick The Canadian Press Ottawa's Parliament Hill

Jim Bronskill – The Canadian Press and Laura Osman – The Canadian Press in Ottawa

10:46 p.m.

  • Canada

A federal official said a group of senior officials considered warning the public about possible foreign interference in the last general election, but after analysis decided not to. do it.

The decision was made, in part, because a possible disinformation campaign was likely to reach only the Chinese diaspora, said Allen Sutherland, who works in the Privy Council Office as an assistant cabinet secretary.

Mr. Sutherland prepared the agenda and participated in the meetings of this so-called “Group of Five,” whose members were responsible for issuing a public warning if they believed an incident — or an accumulation of incidents — compromised Canada's ability to hold free and fair elections. There were no such announcements in 2021 or regarding the 2019 elections.

The senior officials committee heard concerns about information circulating on the Mandarin-language social media app WeChat during the 2021 campaign. The Conservative Party has flagged a possible disinformation campaign regarding its platform and attitude towards from China. Former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole told the inquiry earlier this week that he estimated the campaign could have cost his party as many as nine seats.

Officials discussed the appropriateness of a public warning, Sutherland said, and he compared the campaign to an earlier situation that involved a fake article containing inflammatory information about the prime minister Justin Trudeau in 2019.

The fact that the WeChat messages were in Mandarin meant that the information would likely only reach the Chinese diaspora, unlike the fake articles which were in English and had the potential to “go viral” nationally. “I don't want to leave you with the impression that this was treated any less seriously,” Sutherland told the commission.

Also read

  • RCMP failed to investigate interference in last two election campaigns
  • Resumption of the federal investigation into foreign interference, between secrecy and transparency

As a last resort

This was just one of the factors that led the committee to choose not to issue a public warning in what was ultimately a nuanced judgment, he argued.

The lack of evidence to conclusively link the campaign to China and the fact that the messages referred to “substantial policy issues” — as opposed to clearly false allegations — also weighed in, Mr. Sutherland said in a summary of an interview he gave to the commission before his testimony.

He told the inquiry on Friday that discussions were taking place about the threshold for making a public announcement, and he indicated that this would happen, for example, if the spread of false information was persistent and could affect decisions citizens' voting. “It was understood that this would only be done as a last resort, when the democratic ecosystem would not clean itself up and no one would debunk the information,” he said.

In the course of his work, Mr. Sutherland has developed relationships with Canadian executives of social media companies.

Under the terms of a voluntary agreement, these companies sometimes identified inauthentic activity on their platforms and brought it to its attention.

Facebook reported the inflammatory article about Mr. Trudeau to Mr. Sutherland. Under the direction of Ian Shugart, then Clerk of the Privy Council, Mr. Sutherland then asked Facebook to remove the article and the company complied.

“Because the system had debunked the fake news, the committee did not have to make an announcement,” says the summary of Mr. Sutherland's interview with the committee.

According to Mr. Sutherland, the committee was concerned that too frequent public interventions would unnecessarily create the impression that Canada's democratic institutions lacked integrity.

The threshold for a public announcement

However, committee members discussed benchmarks for a public announcement, and there was a feeling that this threshold could be met even “if only one or two constituencies were affected” by foreign interference , he said.

The committee received information from sources such as the Election Security and Intelligence Threats Working Group, comprised of representatives from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the RCMP, Global Affairs Canada and the Communications Security Establishment.

Online posts about the Conservative agenda, including some on WeChat, were an anomaly, the Global Affairs representative on the working group testified Friday.

“Our assessment was unfortunately not conclusive,” Gallit Dobner told the commission.

While the disinformation could have been part of a Chinese government-sponsored campaign, there was “no evidence” to suggest it was directed by Beijing, she said. The other possibility was that the posts were “purely organic”.

In the 2019 and 2021 general elections, the Liberals were re-elected to government with minority mandates, while the Conservatives formed the official opposition.

Some political candidates told the inquiry they were furious to learn only after the two election campaigns that officials were monitoring activities suspected of being linked to foreign states.< /p>

Lyall King, who chaired the threat task force in the last two elections, said briefings for political party representatives in 2019 were aimed at raising awareness about interference foreigner and help them identify it.

“We did not provide them with a sufficiently specific level of information for them to take immediate action,” Mr. King emphasized.

China at the forefront in 2019

As the 2019 elections approached, China was seen as the most significant threat from an interference perspective.

The CSIS representative on the working group described China as being “at the ceiling” in intentions and capabilities, while other countries were somewhere “around our ankles,” says a document filed during the investigation.

Pakistani government officials in Canada attempted to covertly influence Canadian federal policy in an effort to advance Islamabad's interests, according to a summary of intelligence presented to the commission.

As a result, Canadian officials took an unspecified action that effectively reduced the threat of foreign interference ahead of the 2019 election.

Another intelligence summary indicates that India's attempts at foreign interference target Canadian politicians and democratic processes at all levels of government.

Indian officials in Canada increasingly rely on proxies and contacts in their networks to carry out such activities, thereby obscuring any explicit connection to the Indian government, the document adds.

India's interference activities in the 2021 elections “were focused on a small number of electoral constituencies”, the summary said.

He adds that some of them were of interest to India because of the government's perception that a portion of Indo-Canadian voters were favorable to the Khalistan independence movement or to pro-Pakistani political positions.

The commission is expected to release its preliminary findings by May 3 and a full report by the end of the year.

The federal investigation, chaired by Judge Marie-Josée Hogue, of the Quebec Court of Appeal, aims in particular to identify possible foreign interference from China, India, Russia or other countries during the last two federal general elections.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116