Party campaign directors kept in the dark about possible threats of Chinese interference in 2021 election

The campaign directors agreed on the need for more frank conversations on possible threats

OTTAWA – Canada’s top intelligence officials were aware as of July 2021 that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could interfere in specific ridings in the election to either support candidates viewed as “pro-PRC” or oppose those seen as “anti-PRC,” but that information was never explicitly mentioned to the party campaign directors at the time.

In fact, Walied Soliman, Conservative campaign co-chair in the 2021 election, as well as Liberal national campaign director Azam Ishmael and the NDP’s national director Anne McGrath confirmed during the hearings on the inquiry on foreign interference on Tuesday that they were never given that level of detail during their top-level security briefings.

“I think any political party would have would have been alarmed by that statement and would have in the very least engaged further and asked a lot of questions,” said Soliman.

McGrath told the inquiry that the information was “more specific” than anything she could recall and that parties were under the impression that the major public safety threat under which they were operating was having an election during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If there was any sense that there was going to be activity by the People’s Republic of China against Parliament and certain MPs, and interference in specific ridings, it would have been useful to know which ridings, what type of interference and what we should do about it,” she said

The document, dated July 2021, was a secret clearance briefing note from the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force which is comprised of CSIS, the CSE, the RCMP and Global Affairs Canada. It was meant to set out information on lessons learned from the 2019 election and why parties should care about foreign interference in 2021.

The note showed that there was no definitive intelligence during the 2019 election to indicate that foreign state actors were specifically targeting Elections Canada, or the Canadian electoral systems and networks and there was no evidence of a broad-based foreign state directed interference campaign in the digital information ecosystem.

The SITE Task Force however observed foreign interference activities targeting certain ridings and candidates in relation to the 2019 election, directed largely from China and, to a lesser extent, from India and Pakistan, using human agents. Ultimately, none of the activities met the threshold to pursue criminal investigations, read the note.

The threat environment had however evolved by 2021. The briefing note read that the COVID-19 pandemic had “negatively impacted the ability of state actors to engage in foreign interference via direct human interaction but created opportunities for cyber activities and online disinformation campaigns.”

“As the situation in Canada normalizes, foreign interference efforts will likely resume with its previous intensity, especially in the lead-up to a federal election in Canada,” it read.

It also read that the PRC would be the “primary threat actor in an upcoming federal election” due to tensions in the bilateral relationship with Canada and that foreign interference meddling could be directed against Canada’s Parliament and certain MPs.

Soliman, Ishmael and McGrath described the extensive process to receive their secret security clearances to subsequently receive classified briefings from the SITE Task Force during the election but were critical of the information they received.

Ishmael said the SITE Task Force was “a good effort” by the government to safeguard the elections and appreciated that a number of officials were monitoring the situation actively, but the nature of the information he was given was “very general” and said it was “a bit disappointing” because of the lack of recommendations to prevent interference.

Soliman said that he could have gotten the same information reading the newspapers.

“My overall sense was that I really didn’t learn anything in the briefings that I didn’t regularly read in the New York Times or the Globe and Mail or Toronto Star … I often wondered why I went through such an extensive security clearance to listen to the briefings,” he said.

McGrath said she was “struck” by the amount of high-level representatives in the room from each of the agencies but agreed that most of the information was “fairly generic.”

“There were PowerPoint presentations on different aspects of election interference,” she said. “I never felt like I had tools to actually identify if and when it was happening.”

Soliman said that Conservative regional organizers had been sharing their concerns partway through the campaign about misinformation relating to former leader Erin O’Toole’s policies on crime and safety to the party in a “few targeted ridings.”

But the party’s view at the time was: get back to work on your campaigns.

“I had the confidence of the briefings that there was nothing that had gone wrong in 2019 and had no reason to believe that there was anything going on in 2021,” said Soliman.

According to a secret memorandum showed at the inquiry, the Conservative Party of Canada approached the Privy Council Office four days after the election had occurred to raise their concerns about potential foreign interference in 13 electoral ridings, including four in the Metro Vancouver area and nine in the Greater Toronto area.

They raised anti-CPC advertisements displayed in a Chinese grocery store, automated “bots” completing polling surveys, allegations that organizers in specific communities cast ballots on behalf of voters and business owners pushing employees to vote for the Liberals.

One of the ridings that raised questions was Don Valley North, which was the subject of allegations from media reports. MP Han Dong, which was elected as a Liberal but is now sitting as independent, was set to testify later Tuesday at the inquiry.

The memorandum showed SITE Task Force member agencies conducted further analysis of the information and were “unable to conclude that there was a clandestine campaign” to influence the outcomes of the 13 ridings identified by the Conservative party.

PCO’s note concluded that the Conservative party was “not satisfied with the findings” and threatened to “publicly allege that the CPC was a target of foreign interference activities.”

Soliman, who read the document for the first time that morning, took issue with the characterization. “At no time did Erin O’Toole, or any member of his team, try to make some Trumpian assertion that the election was lost to the Conservatives because of foreign interference,” he said.

“Frankly, when I read this memo, I felt it affirmed to me that we are being managed as opposed to having folks take a serious look at what were quite concerning issues.”

The former campaign directors agreed that one way to help get a better sense of the risks of foreign interference at hand for the next election would be to increase the security clearance to have more frank conversations on possible threats and how to prevent them.

“I would say that we either take it seriously or we don’t,” said McGrath. “We went through this whole process to get security clearances, we had these meetings with these very high-level people in all of these agencies but it still felt very much to me like a bit of a pro forma box-checking exercise.”

National Post
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