Panel considered public warning about interference in 2021 election, inquiry hears

By Jim Bronskill and Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — A panel of top bureaucrats considered warning the public about possible foreign interference in the last general election, but ultimately decided against it, a senior official testified at a federal inquiry Friday. 

That decision was made in part because a potential misinformation campaign was likely only to reach the Chinese diaspora, said Allen Sutherland, who works in the Privy Council Office as an assistant secretary to the cabinet.

Sutherland prepared the agenda and sat in on the meetings of the so-called panel of five, which was responsible for issuing a public warning if they believed an incident — or an accumulation of incidents — threatened Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.

There was no such announcement concerning the 2021 or 2019 general elections.

Even so, allegations of foreign interference in those ballots — suggestions fuelled by anonymous leaks to the media — led to a chorus of calls for the public inquiry now underway.

The commission is expected to release its interim findings by May 3, and a full report by the end of the year. 

The panel of five was comprised of the clerk of the Privy Council, the national security adviser, the deputy attorney general and the deputy ministers of public safety and foreign affairs.

Panel members learned of concerns about information circulating on the social-media app WeChat in Mandarin during the 2021 campaign.

The Conservative party flagged a possible misinformation campaign regarding the party’s platform and attitudes toward China. Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole told the inquiry earlier this week he believes it may have cost the party as many as nine seats. 

The bureaucrats discussed whether a public warning was warranted, Sutherland said, and he compared it to an earlier situation involving a false news article that spread inflammatory misinformation about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2019. 

The fact the WeChat messages were in Mandarin meant the information would likely only be seen within the Chinese diaspora, in contrast to the fake news article that was in English and had the potential to “go viral” nationally.

“I do not want to leave you with the impression that it was treated with any less seriousness,” Sutherland told the commission.

It was just one of the factors that led the panel to opt against a public warning in what was ultimately a nuanced judgment call, he said. 

The lack of evidence to link the campaign definitively to China and the fact that the posts referred to “substantive policy issues” as opposed to outright false allegations also weighed against the decision to issue a warning, says a summary of an interview Sutherland gave to the commission before his testimony. 

On Friday, he told the inquiry there were discussions about the threshold for making a public announcement, and he indicated it would happen, for instance, if the spread of false information was persistent and could affect people’s voting decisions.

“It was understood that it would only be done as kind of a last resort when the democratic ecosystem didn’t cleanse itself — that there wasn’t someone debunking the information.”

As part of his work, Sutherland had developed relationships with the Canadian directors of social-media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft. 

Following the terms of a voluntary arrangement, these companies would sometimes identify inauthentic activity on their platforms and bring it to his attention.

Facebook flagged the inflammatory article about Trudeau to Sutherland. At the direction of then-clerk of the Privy Council Ian Shugart, Sutherland then asked Facebook to remove the article and the company complied.

In his interview with the commission, Sutherland remembered the panel discussing the article to determine whether it reached the threshold for a public announcement. “Because the system had debunked the false news, the panel did not have to make an announcement,” the interview summary says.

According to Sutherland, the panel worried that intervening publicly too frequently would unnecessarily create an impression that Canada’s democratic institutions lacked integrity.

However, the panel members continually discussed the question of what would meet the threshold, and there was a sense it could be met even “if only one or two ridings were affected” by foreign interference, he said.

The panel received information from sources including the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force, composed of representatives of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP, Global Affairs Canada and the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s cyberspy agency.

The online posts about the Conservative platform, including some on WeChat, were an anomaly, the Global Affairs representative on the task force testified Friday. 

“Our assessment, unfortunately, came up inconclusive,” Gallit Dobner told the commission. 

While the misinformation could have been part of a Chinese-government sponsored campaign, there was “zero evidence” to suggest that it was directed by Beijing, she said. The other possibility was that the posts were “purely organic.” 

In both the 2019 and 2021 general elections, the Liberals were returned to government with minority mandates while the Conservatives formed the official Opposition.

Individual political candidates have told the inquiry they were angry to learn only after both election campaigns that officials had been monitoring activity suspected of being linked to foreign states.

Lyall King, who chaired the SITE task force in the last two elections, said briefings for political party representatives in 2019 were intended to build awareness about foreign interference and help them identify it.

“We weren’t providing them with a level of information that was so specific as to take an immediate action,” King said.

In the lead-up to the 2019 election, China was seen as the most significant threat from an interference perspective.

The CSIS representative on the task force described China as “at the ceiling” in terms of intent and capability, while other countries were somewhere “around our ankles,” says a document tabled at the inquiry.

Government of Pakistan officials in Canada tried to clandestinely influence Canadian federal politics with the aim of furthering Islamabad’s interests, says an intelligence summary presented to the commission.

As a result, Canadian officials carried out an unspecified measure that effectively reduced the foreign interference threat in advance of the 2019 election, the summary says.

Another intelligence summary says foreign interference attempts by India are aimed at Canadian politicians and democratic processes at all levels of government.

Indian officials in Canada have increasingly relied on proxies and the contacts in their networks to conduct such activities, obscuring any explicit link to the Indian government, the document adds.

India’s interference activities during the 2021 election “were centred on a small number of electoral districts,” the summary says.

It adds that some were of interest to India owing to the government’s perception that a portion of Indo-Canadian voters were sympathetic to the Khalistani independence movement or pro-Pakistan political stances.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 5, 2024.

Jim Bronskill and Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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