Some members of Parliament say they have no idea how to spot foreign interference, as Canada’s spy agency warns that all elected officials are targets for hostile states.
“There is not clarity, quite frankly, around what MPs and their parties can do to protect themselves,” NDP MP Rachel Blaney told CSIS officials on Feb. 9.
She was speaking during the House procedure committee’s hearings on foreign interference, which is studying allegations of attempts by China to meddle in the 2019 federal election.
The MPs heard from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service about efforts to safeguard against foreign states trying to improperly influence elected representatives and candidates for office.
“All levels of government are susceptible and targeted by foreign-interference actors,” CSIS assistant director Cherie Henderson testified.
“That’s provincial, federal and municipal — all electoral candidates are.”
Henderson added that CSIS must “educate all Canadians, including MPs, in regards to the potential threat that they face from foreign-interference actors.”
That suggestion had MPs nodding in agreement.
“I’m concerned that there could be something happening, and I would be merrily going along my way doing my work during an election, and I’d have no idea,” Blaney said.
The B.C. MP asked officials exactly she and her staff should watch for, or ask about, to avoid foreign influence.
Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell said on Feb. 7 that her colleagues have long been stumped on how to spot interference.
“There is really little-to-no briefings or training for MPs on how to even deal with that, so clearly that issue (has) persisted,” said the Toronto-area MP, who held a top security clearance during her time on the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians.
A year ago, CSIS told media it was offering briefings to some MPs and Senators on foreign influence and interference, and two MPs who frequently speak out against China confirmed getting such training. But it’s unclear how many elected officials are offered these briefings.
“We do try to engage individuals who we know are being targeted,” Adam Fisher, the CSIS director general for intelligence assessments, testified on Feb. 9.
He said CSIS has been “engaging with parties in a classified setting (and in an) unclassified setting with broader audiences to educate them about the threat.”
Henderson pointed to a generic guide released last year called “Foreign Interference and You,” which has vague advice such as protecting oneself “by being aware of the threat and doing your due diligence.”
The guide advises MPs, academics and civil servants to file police reports or alert CSIS when they face “intimidation, harassment, coercion or threats,” which can include being “manipulated into sharing valuable information through a casual conversation.”
Another CSIS document, “Foreign Interference Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process,” advises politicians to avoid sharing personal information with strangers, question suspicious donations and take note of “frequent requests to meet privately.”
The agency did not provide more details when asked to respond to the concerns raised by MPs.
“CSIS routinely engages with a variety of stakeholders, including elected officials at all levels of government across Canada representing all major political parties, to raise awareness of the potential threats to the security and interests of Canada and provide advice on how to protect themselves and their staff,” agency spokesman Brandon Champagne wrote in an email.
“These briefings are provided to promote awareness of state-sponsored foreign interference and to strengthen individual security practices and protect Canadians and their interests.”
Stephanie Carvin, a professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said it seems CSIS and elected officials don’t understand each other.
“This is a real challenge,” said Carvin, a former national security analyst.
“If CSIS doesn’t necessarily understand the incentives of an MP, and the MP doesn’t really understand what CSIS does, then that’s when these dilemmas happen,” she said.
“If these publications don’t necessarily reflect the needs of an MP, or the lives of an MP, or the incentives of an MP, then they’re not particularly useful.”
She said that’s compounded by the fact that Canada does not give most of its elected officials security clearances, unlike other democracies, and a lack of statistics on alleged cases.
Carvin noted that foreign interference is not a criminal charge and no one has been charged under the Canada Elections Act for advocating on behalf of a foreign state.
Given that lack of public information, Carvin said CSIS could provide politicians with activities or behaviours to watch for as they go about being visible in public, taking donations and meeting with constituents and interest groups.
“The whole foreign interference file is such a black box,” she said. “What they should be doing is giving MPs case studies.”
This week, the Australian government went public with a case of its spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, shutting down an attempt by Iranian proxies to target a dual citizen for organizing protests in Australia that were critical of Iran.
“Last year, ASIO disrupted the activities of individuals who had conducted surveillance in the home of an Iranian-Australian, as well as conducted extensive research of this individual and their family,” Australian Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said in a Tuesday speech.
“We don’t just need to disrupt these operations, but deter future ones, by imposing costs on their sponsor through outing them, where possible.”
Carvin also said the Liberals are right to warn against stigmatizing communities in updating national-security tools. The Liberals have moved slowly on consulting about a possible registry of foreign agents.
Such a registry would compel people to publicly report when they do paid work on behalf of a foreign state, and face fines or jail time for not doing so.
Carvin said Canada and its allies in recent decades impeded their work preventing terrorism by making Muslim communities feel stigmatized, and she warns against doing the same with Canadians of Asian descent.
“We do need to do a better job, whether in terms of providing case studies or a list of actions and behaviours, rather than demonizing any particular equity-deserving group,” she said.
Carvin added that national security agencies have been aware of foreign interference targeting diaspora communities for years, but the issue only seemed to gain public attention when it involved MPs.
“We’re not listening to the to the communities themselves,” she said.
“Anyone can be an agent of influence, it’s not dependent on their nationality, it depends on who they are and what they’re doing.”
—Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press