Johnston advises against foreign interference investigation, opts for hearings

OTTAWA — Special Rapporteur David Johnston says a formal investigation into foreign interference is not needed, but he will hold his own public hearings on the issue sometime this year.

The former governor-general said an investigation cannot be conducted in public due to the sensitivity of the intelligence involved, and that there would be considerable overlap with the work he has already been doing to investigate the issue of alleged foreign meddling in the last two elections. feds. .

For his own public hearings to proceed, Johnston said he would not require the formal subpoena powers that a commissioner would receive if a formal investigation were to take place. Hearings could include testimony from diaspora communities, academics, and political actors.

“Canadians deserve straight answers about the impact of foreign interference and whether the government did not act appropriately,” Johnston said during a press conference after the release of his initial report.

The report, released Tuesday, found serious problems in the way security agencies communicated intelligence to the government.

But it did not identify any cases where the prime minister did not act negligently based on intelligence, advice or recommendations.

In March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Johnston to lead an investigation into the scope and impact of foreign interference in Canada, amid allegations that China meddled in the past two federal elections.

“There are serious deficiencies in the way intelligence is communicated and processed from security agencies to government, but no examples have been identified of ministers, the prime minister or their offices knowingly or negligently failing to act on intelligence, advice or recommendations,” Johnston said. report said.

He said there is a “lack of accountability” over who gets what intelligence, a situation that is not acceptable given the current threat environment.

Former GG David Johnston says foreign interference material is too sensitive to investigate but advises hearings. #foreigninterference #chineseinfluence #cdnpoli

“I found that there are significant and unacceptable gaps in the government machinery,” he told reporters.

“Intelligence is decentralized and, in many cases, not communicated well. It is not properly filtered to key decision makers, and existing accountability mechanisms are not sufficient.”

Johnston’s report also concluded, based on access to classified documents and security agencies, that the specific allegations of interference that have dominated the political conversation were less concerning than media reports suggested.

“When viewed in full context with all relevant intelligence, several leaked materials that raised legitimate questions have turned out to have been misinterpreted in some media reports, presumably due to a lack of this context,” he said, pointing to reports by Global News. and the Globe and Mail which have dominated the political conversation around interference.

Johnston said all party leaders would have access to additional classified information exposing that broader context, if they get the proper security clearance.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he had sent letters to his counterparts offering to help them obtain such authorization.

“I certainly hope that all party leaders take the opportunity to understand the facts of the situation as we continue important discussions about how to keep Canadians, businesses, our research institutions and especially our democracy safe,” he said.

“I don’t think Canadians want or expect any of their leaders to choose ignorance when they can choose to have the facts laid out for them.”

Johnston said an investigation into the allegations would have to be conducted almost entirely behind closed doors.

“That would defeat its primary purpose, which is public accountability through transparency,” the report said, adding that the public process should “focus on strengthening Canada’s ability to detect, deter, and counter foreign interference in our elections.” and the threat that such interference poses to our democracy.”

He told reporters: “You just can’t do a public review of classified intelligence.”

Johnston’s report had also warned that excessive partisanship in the way the issue is discussed is making the country more vulnerable to external threats.

“There have been too many posturings and ignoring facts in favor of slogans, from all parties. And many of those slogans turned out to be wrong.”

Opposition Conservatives have been clamoring for an investigation.

Leader Pierre Poilievre had refused to meet with Johnston, describing the role of special rapporteur as a “phony job”.

In Quebec on Tuesday, he told reporters that a conservative government would call a public inquiry.

He said Johnston’s report was an attempt to “cover up” serious allegations of interference and that “Conservatives don’t buy it.”

The Conservative leader had previously described Johnston as the prime minister’s “ski buddy”.

Johnston responded directly to that label on Tuesday, dismissing his alleged friendship with the prime minister.

“My friendship with the current prime minister was based only on a few ski expeditions with my children,” he said, noting that the families had cabins close to each other.

He said his impartiality or integrity has not been questioned before and called his dismissal from his job “troubling”.

“These types of unsubstantiated accusations diminish trust in democratic institutions,” he said.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said on Tuesday that he respected Johnston’s work but “strongly disagreed” with his findings not to conduct a public inquiry given “serious allegations” of interference.

He said his party is unwilling to provoke an election over the issue as it continues to support the liberal minority with a trust and supply deal.

Singh said he will have a discussion with Trudeau on the matter and will use all available legislative tools to push for an investigation, though he did not say what those tools are.

Johnston said during his own news conference on Tuesday that when the process began in March, he thought it would probably recommend a public inquiry.

But he said he realized that was not the correct course of action because the intelligence he was reviewing “is, and must remain, secret.”

Johnston said the next phase of his tenure will be to look into the use of classified intelligence in law enforcement, the role of the Parliamentary Committee on Homeland Security and Intelligence and the possibility of amendments to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act that could improve the intelligence sharing process or address foreign interference.

“I will also review the merits of a government-led process for declassifying information to improve transparency, and look at the case for a Cabinet Homeland Security Committee,” he said. “And I will examine the question of how the government treats threats against elected officials.”

Johnston’s work is expected to continue until the end of October, when he is due to submit a final report to the government.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 23, 2023.

— With files from Mickey Djuric and Stephanie Taylor.

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