Senior intel officials talk generalities, share nothing specific during Foreign Interference Inquiry

Day 4: Intelligence agencies address information classification methods.

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Senior government officials within Canada's intelligence and surveillance apparatus explained their agencies' mandated roles and methods of information classification while sharing nothing specific about foreign states' influence operations in Canada during the fourth day of the Foreign Interference Commission's (FIC) public hearings on Thursday in Ottawa, ON.

CSIS Director David Vigneault was joined by Daniel Rogers, the deputy national security advisor to the prime minister, and Alia Tayyeb, deputy chief of signals intelligence with the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) in presenting information regarding their procedures and policies for collection and dissemination of information.

The FIC was established by the federal government following allegations from the media and political classes – based on leaked classified information originating from Canada's surveillance agencies – of foreign state interference in Canada's 2019 and 2021 federal election. The FIC will ostensibly investigate claims of political influence operations in Canada waged by foreign states and non-state actors.

The Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project (URAP), which describes itself as an organization raising awareness of the "unfolding Uyghur genocide committed by China." The URAP states that its mission is to "push for political actions by the government of Canada to address the issue domestically and globally".

URAP withdrew from its participation in the FIC following Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue's decision to grant standing to politicians it says are compromised by the Chinese Communist Party. It declared via statement on Wednesday:

URAP has conveyed its disappointment regarding Commissioner Hogue's decision to grant full standing to MP Han Dong (a former Liberal MP) and Markham's deputy mayor Michael Chan, along with intervener status to Senator Yuen Pau Woo. These statuses provide access to highly confidential information, potentially jeopardizing our community and others, and allowing them to cross-examine witnesses.

There are strong, credible allegations against these three individuals for their association with the Chinese Communist Party and its interference 

into Canadian politics. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service has substantiated the claims against MP Dong and Mr. Chan. These allegations pose a significant security risk to Canada, and specifically to diaspora communities affected by transnational repression that are participating in the inquiry. 

URAP refuses to participate in a process meant to address and reconcile foreign interference - that uplifts individuals complicit in and benefiting from foreign interference themselves. The Commission’s protection of questionable national actors and its simultaneous failure to safeguard victims of transnational repression reveals systemic dysfunctionality in its process. This failure is incongruous with the Commission’s proposed mission and Canadian values of democracy, transparency and rule of law.

URAP wholeheartedly supports the public inquiry’s core mission, given URAP Executive Director Mehmet Tohti’s relentless victimization, intimidation and harassment by Chinese officials for his advocacy for the Uyghur community. It is disheartening that the Commissioner has failed to protect individuals like Mehmet and other diaspora community members personally invested in the public inquiry’s subject matter.

On Wednesday, former CSIS Director Richard Fadden said Canada's intelligence and surveillance apparatus was "overprotective" by excessively classifying information. "If you have a number of institutions that have contributed to a particular piece of intelligence, almost always the default is to classify to the highest level sought by any given institution," he said. "It's very rarely that you end up with the lowest common denominator or the lowest common classification."

Vigneault disagreed with Fadden's description of reflexive classification of information within CSIS and related agencies. He said things had changed since Fadden's tenure as director of CSIS between 2009 and 2013. Vigneault assumed the directorship of CSIS in 2017.

The CSIS director said decisions to classify information about foreign governments' influence operations were made to prevent states like China from identifying what CSIS is doing, observing or interested in via "deduction".

The Globe and Mail's Steven Chase highlighted an example of a completely redacted document approved for public release by CSIS and presented during Thursday's hearing.

Despite stated claims of a commitment to transparency in the context of the FIC, none of the senior officials took questions from the media at the conclusion of the hearing.

Although several presenters and participants have expressed concerns about the limited amount of time available for the FIC and its public hearing – three weeks of hearings have been planned – the majority of the week's proceedings have been dedicated to elementary presentations about basic information. The primary topics have been balancing the competing interests of public transparency and the state's need for secrecy to protect national security and the broader national interest; laws, regulations and procedures regarding classification and declassification of information; and processes for resolution of disclosure disputes that may arise between the commission and the federal government.

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