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New directive requires CSIS to tell MPs, public safety minister about foreign threats

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino tells CSIS to give such threats highest level of attention
Storm clouds pass by the Peace Tower and Parliament Hill Tuesday August 18, 2020 in Ottawa.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino has formally directed Canada’s spy agency to investigate and disclose any foreign threats against parliamentarians, their families, their staff members or Parliament itself, as the MP who was targeted by a Chinese diplomat urged his colleagues to go even further.

Conservative MP Michael Chong was invited to testify before the House affairs committee, of which he is usually a member, on Tuesday evening.

He recommended his fellow MPs obtain documents and records related to his case to better understand the “systemic failure” that led to him learning about threats against his family through the media nearly two years after they were being tracked by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Chong said he was briefed this month on the contents of the 2021 CSIS intelligence assessment that alleges Zhao Wei, a Chinese diplomat in Toronto, was collecting information about his family members in Hong Kong in order to sanction them.

But he said he first learned about it when it was reported in the Globe and Mail on May 1.

“Clearly Mr. Zhao and representatives of the (People’s Republic of China) in Canada have been coercively and corruptly targeting MPs on both sides of the aisle, to put pressure on MPs with respect to foreign policy,” Chong said.

He declined to give details about the specific threats he has faced, telling the committee he did not think they would be useful.

Zhao was declared persona non grata by the Foreign Affairs Department last week.

Mendicino has now formally instructed CSIS to give such threats the highest level of attention in a new ministerial directive.

He said CSIS needs to ensure that members of Parliament are informed of threats against them, whenever that is legally possible, and inform police or law enforcement when needed.

In a written statement Tuesday, Mendicino said he has issued the instructions to the spy agency in an effort to be as open and transparent as possible.

The newly unclassified document says CSIS must also tell the public safety minister about all instances of threats against Parliament or parliamentarians and explain how it will respond.

“Furthermore, CSIS will inform the minister of any engagements with parliamentarians related to foreign interference, to better address and mitigate these threats,” Mendicino said.

Chong said the directive comes too late, telling the committee, “there’s a whole range of things that need to have been done yesterday when it comes to foreign interference and espionage.”

Chong said the spy agency should to go even further, by telling any MP who is the subject of a threat the identities of those who are making the threats. He also said their identities should be reported to the Speaker of the House of Commons so they can inform all MPs. He said a similar protocol exists in the United Kingdom.

Chong has said in the House of Commons that Jody Thomas, the prime minister’s national security adviser, told him the 2021 CSIS report was sent to the Privy Council Office and to relevant government departments, but it is unclear exactly who received it.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Mendicino and other ministers have maintained they only learned about the intelligence assessment from the same May 1 media report.

That was the latest in a series of reports from the Globe and Mail and Global News, citing anonymous security sources and top-secret documents, that allege there has been a co-ordinated campaign of interference by China in Canada’s last two federal elections, and an effort to intimidate MPs who are critical of Beijing.

“These releases would not be happening in a system that is functioning properly,” Chong said, adding that the blame ultimately lies with Trudeau.

Leaks of this nature, he said, are the result of a government “that does not release information in a controlled and timely manner to Parliament and its committees.”

The Liberal government announced Tuesday that the Security and Intelligence Threats Task Force will be closely monitoring upcoming byelections in four ridings for signs of interference.

Votes are being held June 19 in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Westmount, Oxford, Portage—Lisgar and Winnipeg South Centre.

The task force, known as SITE, is expected to provide regular assessments of foreign interference threats to a committee of deputy ministers, who will brief members of cabinet if needed.

SITE is also tasked with preparing two reports — one classified, and one unclassified — about any attempts at interfering in the byelections.

Trudeau has tasked former governor general David Johnston with determining what the government’s next steps should be to tackle foreign interference.

Johnston is expected to tell the government by May 23 if he believes a public inquiry or some other form of investigation is needed.

—Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press

READ MORE: Government still investigating why threats against Chong not passed up to cabinet