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

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

Posted on Friday, February 2, 2024 at 8:30 am EST

Last updated Friday February 2, 2024 10:42 pm EST

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

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 interference and protection of 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 the accusations 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 focus on broader policy issues, analyzing the government’s ability to detect, deter and counter foreign interference directed at Canada’s democratic processes. A final report is expected by the end of the year.

Chinese accusations 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 advised the investigation that the public release – through the ongoing commission process – of detailed intelligence information about interference Threats from China and other countries would risk exposing vital secrets.

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

It could jeopardize security around 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 view 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 be a responsible and efficient partner in the work that the government has asked them to do.”

There is a big difference between the commission having access to information about foreign interference and for the public to have 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 should be provided with as much information as possible,” she said during a round of closing comments on Friday.

“The best defense against foreign interference “It 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 is for the public.”

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

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