How should Ottawa fight foreign interference? Don’t wait for probes first, experts say – National

The federal government should work to craft and pass legislation that strengthens Canada against foreign interference this year rather than waiting for investigations — including any potential public inquiry — to take place first, say d former senior officials.

But transparency in all of this will be “essential” to restoring Canadians’ faith in their democratic institutions amid growing allegations of attempted foreign interference.

“The government could commit to tabling a bill … before the summer recess and our politicians could debate it, amend it, improve it and pass it by the end of the year,” said said Michael Wernick, who served as Clerk of the Privy Council for Canada from 2016 to 2019, said Mercedes Stephenson in an interview on The west block Sunday.

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Artur Wilczynski — former director general of security and intelligence at Global Affairs Canada who also served as assistant deputy minister of intelligence at the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) — added efforts to make Canada’s intelligence agencies more transparent about what threats they detect and how they operate will only benefit Canadians.

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“I think having a conversation about the role of intelligence in the midst of a crisis is not a productive or informed conversation,” he said.

“The kind of exercise that could be a little more deliberative, that makes concrete recommendations and that ultimately security intelligence agencies in Canada are more transparent…will give Canadians the confidence they need that our organizations are there to protect them. »

Over the past few months, Global News and The Globe and Mail have revealed detailed reports showing the extent of China’s alleged efforts to influence Canadian society, including allegations of attempted interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections. .

The reports have prompted growing calls for a public inquiry to delve into the broader issue of foreign interference — including whether Canada is doing enough to shield itself from it.

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Insiders analyze the ‘political football’ of foreign interference

On Thursday, a House of Commons committee investigating the allegations called for a public inquiry into the matter, with all opposition members backing a non-binding NDP motion opposed by Liberal MPs.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has so far resisted calls for an inquiry, saying there are other proceedings underway – including the House of Commons committee’s broader inquiry – that are equipped to respond to the concerns. allegations. He again declined to answer whether he would support such an investigation on Friday in response to the committee’s motion.

Wernick says that while he supports the idea of ​​an investigation, it should be broad and not just focus on the Chinese allegations at the center of media reports. But he adds that such an investigation should not be the starting point for legislative changes.

“We don’t have to wait a year and a half for his findings,” he said. “I can tell you the conclusions already: he will recommend that we take the Australian and British models of foreign interference legislation and registration and bring them to Canada.

“So nothing prevents our politicians from working on this legislation in parallel (with an investigation).”

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Foreign interference is not just a Canadian problem. What are our allies saying?

Australia and the United Kingdom have recently adopted public registries that require persons defending a foreign state to register their activities, or face fines or jail time. The United States has a similar program.

Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino have previously said Canada is considering creating a similar registry.

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Last month, US and Australian security officials spoke openly about the threat foreign interference poses to their countries at separate events.

On February 21, the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) said Australia faced an unprecedented threat with more Australians being targeted by agents than ever before.

On the same day, top U.S. state election and cybersecurity officials warned of threats posed by Russia and other foreign adversaries ahead of the 2024 election, noting that the U.S. decentralized system of thousands of jurisdictions in local voting creates a vulnerability.

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Canada’s spy chief is sounding the alarm over foreign interference

Wernick and Wilczynski agreed that this kind of transparency should also be a model for Canadian politicians and officials working in intelligence, not only looking back on past elections, but explaining how the fight against foreign interference will continue.

“Understanding what happened in (the election of) 2019 and in 2021 is important. But how can we continue to have this conversation in a transparent way so that Canadians know what security agencies are doing to protect electoral systems?” says Wilczynski.

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“What are officers of Parliament like the Elections Commissioner and the head of Elections Canada, what do they do? What are political parties doing to ensure we have the right calibrated approach to mitigate the risks to our democracy? It is fundamental and it is continuous.

Wilczynski noted that the CSE also issued threat assessments, similar to last month’s US warning, ahead of the 2019 and 2021 elections to warn Canadians and political parties to “be mindful” and protect their communities. data from hostile foreign players, who are stepping up their attempts at interference. .

“It’s persistent, it grows and it gets more sophisticated,” he said.

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Motion to inquire into foreign election interference passed in committee, Liberals oppose

Wernick adds that increased transparency must also be balanced with protecting intelligence-gathering methods and maintaining the integrity of law enforcement investigations — which he and Wilczynski say are threatened by leaks in the media. media.

“There is a balance between you and you need enough transparency to maintain that trust, but if you go too far you reveal the methods and sources of collection and compromise your future ability to continue to collect this information” , Wernick said.

A long-awaited report released last week upheld the conclusion of an election integrity panel that the 2021 federal election was free and fair, despite acknowledging attempted interference that did not reached the level of a voter warning requirement.

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However, that report suggested that the threshold for the panel to notify the public of interference – which was also not met in the 2019 vote – should be lowered for future elections.

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NDP and Conservatives call for investigation into allegations of foreign election interference

Wilczynski and Wernick agree that greater communication with the public will not only help Canadians better understand how intelligence gathering works and protect them, but also restore faith in elections and democracy.

“I think transparency is key, and I think transparency is something we can do more of in the security intelligence community,” Wilczynski said.

“We need to have a proper retrospective look at what happened. … But then we have to look to the future. What can government institutions and leaders do to restore Canadians’ confidence in our democratic institutions and prepare for the evolving threat of foreign interference in Canada?

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— with files by Aaron D’Andrea

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