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Trudeau expressed frustration about 'sensationalized' leaks of intelligence

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed frustration to a federal inquiry into foreign interference that intelligence leaked to the media had been "sensationalized" and taken out of context.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed frustration to a federal inquiry into foreign interference that intelligence leaked to the media had been "sensationalized" and taken out of context.

In his view, the last two general elections were free and fair. 

In a classified interview with the commission of inquiry in February, Trudeau said leaks suggesting otherwise were extremely damaging to Canadians' confidence in the democratic process. 

A public summary of the interview was disclosed Wednesday at the inquiry, where Trudeau testified at an open hearing.

The summary says Trudeau observed that the leaks were "particularly frustrating" because the Liberal government had put in place robust mechanisms to detect and combat interference, yet it was "painted as negligent in the media."

"PM Trudeau also considered that the leaks illustrate the dangers of drawing conclusions based on a single piece of intelligence, without sufficient context, and without any analysis of its reliability."

Allegations of foreign interference in the last two general elections — suggestions fuelled by anonymous leaks to the media — led to a chorus of calls for the public inquiry.

During the hearing Wednesday, Trudeau spoke of the "explosive nature of the media stories, stemming from unsubstantiated and uncorroborated intelligence shared by a leaker."

"There are also things that were flat-out wrong."

The hearings are part of the inquiry's effort to examine possible foreign interference by China, India, Russia and others in the last two general elections.

Trudeau said Canadians can have confidence in the conclusions of national security officials and top bureaucrats that the 2019 and 2021 general elections were "free and fair."

He said the leaks to media were of "deep concern" because the government could not correct the record, in some cases, without revealing the tradecraft Canadian security agencies use to keep citizens and their institutions safe.

"If we say certain things, or if we contradict or deny other things, we could be giving our adversaries tools to actually understand how we go about detecting their interference."

One of the leaks involved allegations against MP Han Dong, who left the Liberal caucus last year after a media report suggested he told a Chinese consular official to delay the release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in 2021. 

Dong denied the allegation, which the prime minister only learned about in the media. 

On Wednesday, Trudeau said categorically he believes the allegation is untrue, but couldn't elaborate as to why, citing a need for confidentiality and national security concerns. 

“There have been significant questions around both translation and summary of the actual exchange," he said. 

Trudeau's appearance followed several days of testimony from members of his cabinet, political party representatives, senior bureaucrats and intelligence officials.

At the hearing, the prime minister listed measures his government had taken to address foreign interference since assuming power in 2015.

Under a protocol ushered in by the Liberals, there would be a public announcement if a panel of bureaucrats determined that an incident — or an accumulation of incidents — threatened Canada's ability to have a free and fair election. 

There was no such announcement concerning either the 2019 or 2021 general elections. In both ballots, the Liberals were returned to government with minority mandates while the Conservatives formed the official Opposition. 

The inquiry has already heard that China and other state actors attempted to interfere, but there has been little evidence so far to indicate whether or not they were successful.

The former minister of democratic institutions said she was told after the October 2019 federal election that Canada's spy agency had seen low-level foreign interference activities by China.

Karina Gould, who held the portfolio from early 2017 to November 2019, said in a classified interview last month that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service indicated the activities were similar to what had been seen in the past.

"That foreign interference did not affect Canadians' ability to have a free and fair election," says a public summary of Gould's interview.

Gould, now government House leader in the Commons, is on parental leave.

As democratic institutions minister, she oversaw design of the protocol for making a public announcement about electoral meddling.

She told the inquiry Wednesday that if Canadians are to be informed "that a foreign actor has interfered in our election, the threshold needs to be high."

Gould said the process was designed to allow for a public announcement due to meddling at a national level or "something that's happening in one, singular riding." 

"It could be either," she said. "Canada doesn't have one national election, we have 338 individual elections that make up an electoral event. And so everything is context-specific." 

Dominic LeBlanc succeeded Gould as the cabinet minister responsible for democratic institutions after the Liberals returned to power in 2019. 

He was asked to review how the measures she implemented worked in practice. 

In that role, LeBlanc rarely received classified intelligence, but he said Wednesday he was given a "sufficiently precise" understanding of the "threat landscape" by the Privy Council Office, which worked with the national security agencies.

In his view, the plan Gould put in place worked. 

Gould was not briefed on irregularities in the 2019 nomination race in the Toronto riding of Don Valley North, where Dong was named Liberal nominee. She told the commission it was outside her purview as democratic institutions minister. 

Bill Blair was told about the irregularities after the election in his role as public safety minister at the time, but Blair said in a classified interview with the commission that he "was not concerned." 

During the public hearings Wednesday, Blair said security officials had no additional supporting information. "They indicated to me that they did not, at that time, have other corroborating evidence in any way to substantiate that." 

Blair, now defence minister, also told the inquiry CSIS did not indicate that Dong had any knowledge of the irregularities. He trusted the spy agency to take the appropriate action, he said.

Trudeau recalled receiving a briefing about Dong’s nomination race from the Liberal campaign director in an Ottawa airport lounge during the 2019 election campaign.

Trudeau said he asked several questions about whether the allegations were substantiated, and whether any complaints were made during the nomination process. He was left with a choice: allow Dong to continue as the Liberal candidate or remove him.

"I didn't feel that there was sufficient, or sufficiently credible, information that would justify this very significant step ... to remove a candidate in these circumstances," Trudeau told the commission.

He noted that as Liberal leader he has previously made the choice to remove candidates in other circumstances.

Late Wednesday, a parliamentary committee released a lengthy final report after digging into allegations of foreign threats against MPs.

The committee concluded that China took aim at Canada's democracy with threats aimed at all MPs. It found that a Chinese diplomat who was expelled over allegations of involvement in an intimidation campaign against Tory MP Michael Chong should be held in contempt of Parliament.

The report includes 29 recommendations, including that the House of Commons do a better job briefing parliamentarians about threats and that CSIS undertake "culture change" to ensure more effective and clearer communication.

Committee members also seek efforts to better declassify and track intelligence, urgent legislation to establish a foreign agent registry, improved briefings for election officials and a "thorough national security review."

A supplementary report from the Conservatives accuses Liberals on the committee of trying to protect Trudeau from political embarrassment and preventing a complete investigation.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 10, 2024.

— With a file from Marie-Danielle Smith

Jim Bronskill and Laura Osman, The Canadian Press