Federal Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc is testifying today before the inquiry probing allegations of foreign election interference as it confronts the question of how much confidential information it can make public.
Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue is investigating whether China, Russia, India and other nations interfered in the past two elections, and how information about foreign interference flowed within the federal government. The inquiry was launched after media reports accused Beijing of meddling in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.
While Hogue eventually will delve into questions about who knew what and when, she and her team need first to work out how they can discuss the issues in public while also protecting intelligence sources and methods.
The commissioner has made it clear she wants her commission to share as much as possible with the public. Documents tabled with the inquiry Thursday suggest that could be an uphill battle.
In a Dec. 15, 2023 letter, lawyers for the federal government wrote to commission counsel warning of “very practical limitations” on the extent to which classified information can be made public.
Before the public hearings began, the inquiry ran an exercise and asked the government to review 13 documents to see what they would look like if they were released publicly.
Most of the CSIS documents shared Thursday were entirely redacted — blacked-out. One assessment, which was partially redacted, showed that Canada was considered a “high-priority” target for Chinese interference ahead of the 2021 election.
Ottawa warns lives are at stake
According to the letter, the government’s national security lawyers told the commission they would object to any further disclosure of the information contained in the sample documents.
“Intelligence concerning multiple aspects of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) foreign interference and malign influence activities are of the utmost importance for the government of Canada because of the scope and impact of this threat,” it reads.
“These activities involve immediate threats or grave harm to Canada’s strategic interests.”
The government lawyers said the threat is multiplied by the “mosaic effect” — adversaries piecing together morsels of intelligence to get a sense of the larger picture.
“For example, media reporting has indicated that the PRC has previously successfully used such capabilities to dismantle the CIA’s human source network, resulting in severe consequences, including imprisonment and dozens of lives lost,” said the lawyers.
Their letter ends by saying the government recognizes the importance of educating the public on the threat of foreign interference and is open to dialogue with the commission going forward.
“Part of that dialogue requires a better sense of what type of information the Inquiry is interested in making public, with the understanding that there are very practical limitations on what classified information can be made public,” it says.
LeBlanc is expected to take questions on the government’s position and how far it’s willing to go in the interests of keeping the public informed.
On Thursday, the commission heard from CSIS Director David Vigneault. He said that while the spy agency wants to be as “transparent as possible … the purpose of CSIS is to have secrets.”
The discussions this week on classified intelligence are meant to set the stage for the next round of public hearings, scheduled for March.
Those hearings are intended to investigate allegations of foreign interference by China, India, Russia and other actors in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. The inquiry’s interim report is due May 3.