The Foreign Interference Commission–Part II

On April 2nd, 2024, stage one, week two of the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Process and Democratic Institutions (The Commission) began.  The four days of hearings featured testimonies provided by national party chairs, current and former Members of Parliament, and leaders from the security and intelligence community.

Some of the issues raised by national party chairs.

What the testimonies provided by the party chairs of Canada’s big three federal political parties seemed to indicate was that there was quite a bit of confusion when it came to classified briefings.  All three chairs were subject to a background check, although the full extent of the background checks was not specified.  The meeting held with public safety stakeholders occurred under strict conditions; it was exclusively verbal and there were no paper or notes.

Some of the briefings they received were described as overly general, and that it was the media who they considered to be the leaders with stories and information as it related to foreign interference. This is where they said the main information about foreign interference came from.  Media reports were described as being far more detailed than the security briefings, and that there were times where they would learn nothing from them at all.

Some of the documents related to the election integrity briefings submitted to the court and referenced by lawyers were not recognized by any of the party chairs—they were never seen.  All the chairs raised issue with the details within the submitted documents, saying there was never that level of specificity at any of the meetings and that the documents being discussed were only seen by the chairs in the early mornings hours as they were submitted at the last minute.

Overall, none of the chairs had foreign interference on their radar, they all saw the engagement process with security briefings as being inconsistent and that it required operational improvements.  They suggested it may be necessary to receive more extensive background checks because the meetings that took place were superficial.

What came as a surprise during this panel was the acknowledgement that non-residents of Canada were eligible to vote in some nomination elections, even though non-residents can not vote in the federal election.

Matters addressed by past and present Members of Parliament

Both past and present Members of Parliament (MPs) suggested that they would have preferred that security briefings began earlier because foreign interference was not on any of their radars.  Predictive modelling, a more comprehensive system than traditional polling, had identified that the results of some ridings were significantly outside of the modelling window, and between five and nine ridings may have been impacted as the first indication of potential “foreign interference”.  Additionally, the MPs highlighted that most of the information they were receiving on foreign interference was also through the media.

The MPs were not favourable of the security and intelligence community’s work, and suggested there was a lack of information provided on foreign interference or the locations of such activity. While none of them suggested that the foreign interference affected the election, there was a belief that seats were lost because of the interference.  There was also mention of political stakeholder concerns being downplayed and that the communication channels between those stakeholders and the security and intelligence community were limited. While political stakeholders would submit information on suspected acts of foreign interference, it was not reciprocated.

Some other issues raised by the MPs focused on the approach to foreign interference being overly broad and should have focused more specifically on ridings than the national outcome.  There was mention of foreign actors being able to amplify and boost different posts without anyone knowing, different digital platforms shadow banning some candidates,  agencies not having a direct line of sight into different apps, and how elected officials and regular citizens deserved to know when they were the targets of foreign interference.

What came as a surprise during their testimonies was the suggestion that ballot secrecy at the polls was not enough, because whether someone voted was public knowledge.  This was considered to be a big enough hindrance to keep some ethnic Canadians from voting, but it was suggested that legislation was in the works to address this privacy vulnerability.

GAC, RCMP, CSE, and CSIS.  The intelligence alphabet soup.

Global Affairs Canada (GAC) described their mandate as falling under the purview of three Ministers: the Minister of Foreign Affairs, focusing on foreign policy; the Minister of Trade, focusing on international trade policy, exports, and imports; and the Minister of International Development, focusing on spending around the world.  GAC also spoke about the world of diplomacy and how diplomacy was about establishing foreign influence, building networks, and getting familiar with counterparts from around the world.  They said Canada was in the business of diplomacy and would try to influence legislators of other countries, their staffers, and different levels of government.  Diplomacy was described as a contact sport, where Canada’s representatives would actively pursue policy positions that were favorable for it, but they never got involved in the elections process of foreign countries.  In short, GAC was focused on international affairs.

The RCMP described their mandate as not being related to elections, but a memorandum of understanding with Elections Canada assured cooperation with various stakeholders.  The RCMP explained they would pursue criminal investigations only when there was a violation of the Criminal Code or Security of Information Act.  The RCMP confirmed it did not have any criminal investigations for foreign interference during the 43rd and 44th general election, but some post-election files are still under investigation.  Additionally, it was explained that, prior to the 43rd general, there was no hub to share which agencies were watching elections,  how all stakeholders were far better off since the 42nd general election, and how, despite that, there was room for improving systems.  In short, the RCMP was the sole stakeholder with policing powers, so they cooperated closely with different national security investigations.

The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) described their mandate as focusing on providing cyber security and information protections, gathering foreign intelligence, carrying out defensive and active cyber operations, and offering technical and operational assistance.  The CSE explained how they offer robust intelligence dissemination and tracking tools, as well as access to databases on top secret systems available to individuals with clearance and need-to-know accounts.  Primary consumers of CSE intelligence include GAC, CSIS, RCMP, and various clients across government.  In short, the CSE was centered around signals intelligence, but did not have policing powers.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) described their mandate as focusing on collecting information and intelligence on activities suspected of constituting threats to the security of Canada. It focused on advising the Government of Canada and supported different departments and agencies through screening and foreign intelligence collection.  More specifically, CSIS investigations focused on espionage; sabotage; foreign influenced activities; terrorism and subversion; and assisting with security assessments, screening, and collecting foreign intelligence.  In short, CSIS was centered around human intelligence, but did not have policing powers.

Another key cooperative group, Security Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force (SITE TF), also provided an overview of their responsibilities.  SITE TF is a whole-of-government working group created in 2019 that coordinates the collection and analysis of concerning threats to Canada’s federal election processes.  SITE TF is comprised of experts from GAC, RCMP, CSE, and CSIS.  In addition to cooperating with those agencies, SITE TF engages with key senior decision makers within government and political party representatives.  In short, SITE TF focused exclusively on election-related matters, including everything from the actions of specific hostile state proxies or agents to acting on sources of disinformation.

How digital platforms operate within Canada is likely to change.

Canada’s lax laws on the kinds of digital interactions that occur or the digital material that is accessible within its national domain may allow some digital platforms to become arbiters of what happens digitally within the country.  The lack of digital legislation is further complicated because some digital platforms obliged to requests from national governments to block access to certain digital content across their national domains, while resisting such requests when they are made by countries like Canada.

Unlike Canada, many countries around the world have already begun a comprehensive process of creating this type of legislation.    While different digital platforms have the right to determine what can or cannot be posted on their platforms, countries have the same right to determine what can or cannot appear within their national domains.

Ultimately, the lack of willingness of some digital platforms to engage with the government of Canada to help ensure safer societies and a more robust democracy is why the operation of all digital platforms within Canada’s digital landscape is bound to become confined within specific digital legislation.  It is very likely that The Commission will recommend specific legislation be introduced to address the issue of non-compliant digital platforms, as, since they are based outside of Canada, it is the only way to account for the threats posed by them.