Foreign interference task force did not disclose tangible threats to opposition parties: report

The foreign interference inquiry learned that security officials had intelligence on Chinese influence campaigns aimed to elect sympathetic Liberal MPs but Senior New Democrats and Conservatives with national security clearance testified that they were never informed of this.

Foreign interference task force did not disclose tangible threats to opposition parties: report
The Canadian Press / Adrian Wyld
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Senior government staff tasked with uncovering foreign interference failed to intervene after uncovering tangible threats from Chinese agents.

On Tuesday, the Commission on Foreign Interference learned the Security and Intelligence Threat to Elections Task Force (SITE) possessed intelligence on Chinese influence campaigns aimed to elect sympathetic Liberal members of Parliament.

Among the documents tabled at the public inquiry was a task force document dated July 2021, which claimed China “covertly directed financial and voting support for favourable candidates” or those who do not “openly oppose viewpoints important” to Beijing. 

Another SITE document said Chinese proxies targeted Conservative candidates who supported the implementation of a foreign-agent registry and Canada’s withdrawal from the Asian Development Bank. Those who openly opposed Uyghur slave labour in China and the presence of Huawei Technologies in Canada, also became targets.

According to The Globe and Mail, no federal parties had knowledge of either document prior to the 2021 general election. Senior Liberals, New Democrats, and Conservatives with national security clearance were confoundedly left in the dark, leaving them uninformed and unprepared. 

Liberal Party national director Azam Ishmael and former NDP party director Anne McGrath don’t recall ever seeing the classified documents either.

“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 certain ridings, it would have been useful to know,” said McGrath.

However, Ishmael concluded that other SITE briefings did not present “actionable” intelligence. 

“I think any political party would have been alarmed by that statement,” testified Conservative campaign co-chair, Walied Soliman. In contrast, he believed SITE should have engaged each party to monitor alleged foreign interference in real time.

Conservative organizers documented numerous irregularities during the election, continued Soliman. However, they did not publicize their concerns until after the election result.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for an election on August 15, with the governing Liberals securing another four-year term on September 20.

“At no time did Erin O’Toole or any member of his team try to make a Trumpian assertion that the election was lost by the Conservatives because of foreign interference,” clarified Soliman.

However, Conservative officials outlined detailed suspicions of an ‘outside actor’ in the Chinese community that negatively influenced their candidates in 13 ridings. 

The Privy Council dismissed the complaints filed on September 24, 2021, in another SITE document dated October 2021.

Intelligence agencies could not conclude the presence of a clandestine campaign in four Greater Vancouver ridings and nine Greater Toronto ridings, it reads.

“Rarely do I get upset,” Soliman said after reading the document. “We believed at that point there was something wrong that was happening.” 

“If there is a specific or a potential of specific threat … we would have institutionalized at some level of monitoring of what was going on,” he added, noting that Conservative candidates fell victim to Chinese “misinformation” campaigns on social media app WeChat.

The Official Opposition did not learn of any Chinese influence campaigns until last year, when The Globe published reports on top secret intelligence concerning foreign interference.

“My principal complaint is that two years after the election, I learned from a news story through The Globe and Mail that information … was inconsistent with what we were told at that time,” Soliman said. “So yes, was I frustrated? Absolutely.”

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