Katie Telford testifies on election interference, downplays 'value of intelligence'

'Intelligence rarely paints a full concrete or actionable picture,' says Telford, stressing the importance for decision-makers to analyze intelligence as a 'piece of a puzzle.'

Katie Telford testifies on election interference, downplays 'value of intelligence'
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On Friday, Justin Trudeau's chief of staff appeared before the Commons Procedure and House affairs committee to testify on foreign election interference in 2019 and 2021. She commenced her opening remarks by downplaying the value of intelligence, claiming it is rarely actionable.

"Intelligence rarely paints a full concrete or actionable picture," said Telford, stressing the importance for decision-makers to analyze intelligence as a 'piece of a puzzle.'

"Some of it has been wrong, proven wrong, some right. Some we may never know, or only with time will we learn if it's true, even intelligence."

Telford reiterated that Ottawa orchestrated a panel of public servants to monitor the 2019 and 2021 elections, which she claimed the federal government handled "freely" and "fairly."

She has served as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff since he first assumed power in 2015 and attends most national security briefings in which the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) previously warned about Chinese meddling in Canadian politics.

On February 17, top-secret CSIS documents unveiled that China actively protected its "Canadian friends" network that covertly gathered information from MPs and senators. They desired a minority Liberal government to defeat Conservatives deemed "unfriendly" to Beijing in the 2021 federal election.

The Globe reported that Ottawa determined CSIS had no "actionable evidence" of election interference in 2021. However, the leaked documents suggest Beijing's influence exceeded election interference, as they also targeted Canadian legislators to sway public opinion through proxies in the business and academic communities.

During a tense press conference in February, Trudeau refused to give straight answers to questions about Chinese interference. He implied the line of questioning was racist.

Opposition parties have since criticized the prime minister's response to media reports on the dossier that detailed meddling by the Chinese government and its proxies in Canadian elections. 

Trudeau told reporters on February 17 that he wants CSIS to find the leaker of secret reports. He also maintained that China did not influence the results of previous federal elections. 

"It's certainly a sign that security within CSIS needs to be reviewed. And I'm expecting CSIS to take the issue very seriously," he said.

Last month, CSIS Director David Vigneault announced CSIS would spearhead an investigation into who leaked the dossier. 

On Friday, Liberal MP Jennifer O'Connell asked Telford if there are any concerns the leaks will put Canada at risk. The prime minister's chief of staff said unsanctioned disclosures of intelligence information "can put lives at risk."

"It is in Canada's national interest to keep information protected," she said.

On Friday, Telford claimed the Liberals did more than previous governments to address foreign interference, with the feds holding two closed-door panels - the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA). 

On March 23, federal opposition parties passed a non-binding motion 172-149 that called for a public inquiry into election interference. Former Governor General David Johnston is currently reviewing the results of the closed-door panels as a "special rapporteur" and has until May 23 to decide whether to call for a public inquiry. 

"I am a consumer of intelligence, not the one who briefs on intelligence," said Telford, adding she may not be the most valuable witness to the committee proceedings.

This marks the third time she has testified before a committee, including the WE Charity scandal and the government's mishandling of sexual harassment allegations in the military.

The Liberals tried to filibuster a Conservative motion calling her to testify. Still, they consented to an NDP motion to circumvent a more thorough parliamentary study proposed by the Official Opposition.

Opposition MPs repeatedly questioned Telford on the federal government's response to foreign interference in 2019 and 2021, specifically on what the prime minister knew, when, and how he responded.

"Nothing is ever kept from the Prime Minister," she said. "Any time the Prime Minister can take action, he takes it."

NDP MP Rachel Blaney then asked Telford if she thinks Canadians would accept if Johnston does not recommend a public inquiry into election interference. She replied that she didn't want to presume what he ultimately suggests.

"I don't want to presume where the special rapporteur goes," said Telford.

Conservative MP Luc Berthold asked Trudeau's chief of staff about the February 17 Globe and Mail story about a Chinese government strategy to interfere in the 2021 election, which quoted CSIS documents.

He asked if the prime minister had seen those documents. "I can't get into what the Prime Minister has or has not been briefed on," replied Telford.

Berthold followed up with Telford on The Globe report, which referenced Chinese tactics, including undeclared cash donations, illegally returning portions of those donations and Beijing directing Chinese students to work as campaign volunteers.

On donations and fundraising, Telford said, "There are very robust fundraising laws in this country."

Blaney also asked Telford whether she knew of the Chinese government funding of at least 11 candidates in the 2019 federal election.

"The connection being made between these candidates and the funds was inaccurate," said Telford, repeating verbatim what national security adviser Jody Thomas said.

"Every time we turn around, it feels like there is another article, another thing coming out, and this slippery slope of information…is leading people to distrust," said Blaney, who asked the chief of staff to speak more clearly on the matter.

Telford said she did not know what to say to avoid confusing matters.

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