Minister of Security highlights the need to balance transparency and security against foreign interference

OTAWA –

A federal investigation into foreign interference will have full access to secret documents, even if some of that sensitive information cannot be made public, Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc says.

LeBlanc told the investigative committee Friday that there are obligations under the law to protect certain information from disclosure.

A balance must be struck between being transparent about foreign meddling and protecting classified material, said LeBlanc, who is also minister of Democratic Institutions.

“I wouldn’t describe it as a tension, it’s a balance,” he said. “And it’s not a binary choice. I think the government has to do both.”

The hearings that took place this week on national security and confidentiality of information were intended to help pave the way for the commission’s next public sessions, which will likely take place in late March.

The March hearings will focus on the merits of allegations of foreign interference by China, India, Russia and others in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. The initial report of the commission’s findings is due May 3.

The investigation will then move to broader policy issues, examining the government’s ability to detect, deter and counter foreign interference aimed at Canada’s democratic processes. A final report is expected by the end of the year.

Accusations of Chinese interference in recent elections – suggestions fueled by anonymous leaks to the media – led to a chorus of calls for the public inquiry.

A Canadian Security Intelligence Service investigation into the leaks, launched last year, continues in parallel and in coordination with an RCMP criminal investigation, CSIS spokesperson Lindsay Sloane said this week.

“As the investigation is ongoing, I cannot speak to specific details or provide an update at this time. What I can tell you is that CSIS takes any allegations of security breaches, including unauthorized disclosure of classified information, very seriously. “.

Federal lawyers have told the investigation that publicly releasing – through the ongoing commission process – detailed intelligence information about interference threats from China and others would risk exposing vital secrets.

That risk, they say, is compounded by the “mosaic effect,” where adversaries track and piece together small pieces of intelligence over a long period to reveal a clearer picture.

It could jeopardize security over intelligence gaps, methods of operation, foreign associations and identities of CSIS contacts and human sources, lawyers said in correspondence with the commission that appeared this week in the investigation.

The investigation has already had the opportunity to see several classified documents regarding foreign interference. In a preliminary exercise, the inquiry asked the government to review 13 of the records with a view to preparing them for publication.

The review was conducted on an expedited basis, but still required more than 200 person-hours to complete, a level of effort that is not sustainable in the long term, federal lawyers said in their report to the commission. “It is clear that drafting documents on a large scale will not be a productive way to move forward within the allotted time frame.”

Lawyers suggested options including publishing some material with redactions, publishing summaries of “a limited number of documents or issues” and closed-door hearings that would be followed by publishing a public summary.

LeBlanc said Friday that he has confidence in the federal officials who have been ordered to cooperate with the commission over the coming months.

“The government will obviously do whatever we need to do to be a responsible and efficient partner in the work that the government has asked it to do.”

There is a big difference between the commission having access to information about foreign interference and the public having access, said Jon Doody, a lawyer for the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, one of the participants in the hearing.

“The public nature of this investigation must exist in more than just name. The public must be provided with as much information as possible,” he said during a round of closing comments Friday.

“The best defense against foreign interference is an educated and informed public.”

In May last year, the federal government confirmed a media report that CSIS had information in 2021 that the Chinese government was looking for ways to intimidate Conservative MP Michael Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong.

More recently, Global Affairs Canada said it believes Chong was the victim of an online smear campaign, which the department suspects was carried out by Beijing.

China maintains that it never interferes in Canada’s internal affairs.

Chong has been granted standing in the investigation, and his lawyer, Gib van Ert, said Friday that the commission’s proceedings are an opportunity for the Canadian public to understand the true extent of foreign interference.

“It won’t be enough, Commissioner, for you and your lawyer to know what went wrong and write it down in some confidential annex that most people will never see. Because it’s for the public.”


This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2024.

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