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I Met with David Johnston for his Report – here’s what happened
And why we can no longer accept the Prime Minister grading his own homework.
Let me get one thing out of the way: I was the Leader of the Conservative Party in the 2021 election and let me say very clearly that Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party won that election. Political interference from the Chinese Communist Party was NOT the reason the Conservatives lost the election. I take responsibility for the loss.
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But I have also served our country most of my adult life and had a secret clearance in the military and as a Minister of the Crown. I take national defence and security matters seriously and I am disappointed that in the last few years our government has not. While my time in elected office will come to an end soon, I feel that I have a duty to speak out on the issue of foreign interference in our elections. I have watched this issue get progressively worse during my decade in politics. I have also been stunned by the level of indifference from the Trudeau government in their response to this rising threat.
The 2021 election saw a considerable amount of foreign interference targeted towards the Conservative Party, several candidates and me personally. So it was baffling that the man commissioned to report on foreign interference in the 2021 election, Morris Rosenberg, conducted his analysis of the campaign without speaking to a single Conservative. The Rosenberg Report suggests that he worked with all parties, but this is simply false and it calls the entire report into question. Yet it is this report that the Liberals have used to justify their inaction on foreign interference. More on that below.
But first, my meeting with the Right Honourable David Johnston.
To set the scene, Mr. Johnston did not reach out to the Conservative Party, my office, or Pierre Poilievre’s office until the final week of his initial assignment. He waited until the very end to meet with the current and former leaders of the Party that had been the central target of the foreign interference he was charged with investigating. If I am to believe media reports, Johnston interviewed the Bloc Quebecois leader about events alleged to have taken place in British Columbia and Ontario – where Mr. Blanchet ran no candidates – before he finally got around to me or the present Conservative Leader. This makes no sense.
I was still waiting to receive a CSIS briefing on foreign interference that had been promised the week before when my office was called by the Johnston team and told we only had two days to make the meeting work. I asked to meet with him following my meeting with CSIS (which I am still waiting to receive) but was told that this was not possible. I confirmed with Pierre that his office received a request to meet on the same day that I was. He declined the meeting and somehow that information was leaked to the media within hours.
Since I only had a couple of days to prepare, I asked several key 2021 Conservative campaign officials for their input and gathered a considerable amount of social media and polling information. I was proud that my team was able to assemble a solid dossier with predictive modelling analysis as well as evidence from the ground and from WeChat. Given the pressed timeline, we were literally putting the binders together as Mr. Johnston arrived at my office with his counsel. With this in mind, you might understand how disappointed I was to learn halfway through my meeting that Johnston’s report was already undergoing French translation. I was flabbergasted and realized that nothing I was going to provide to the Special Rapporteur was going to impact his work.
I was left with the clear impression that my meeting was nothing more than a box checking exercise. I shared with them detailed examples of my concerns and how I believed that intelligence leaks on interference were the result of many years of inaction by the Prime Minister and senior officials and a steady erosion of trust with our security agencies charged with doing important work in our national interest. I was not really asked any questions or given any insights. It was a very strange meeting. When they made a comparison of nomination level interference by China to nomination campaigns by specific groups in Canada, I realized that sharing my on the ground experiences leading the team that had been targeted by China was a waste of time.
David Johnston is someone I have great admiration for. I consider him to be a great Canadian, which is why I am disappointed that he lent his incredible goodwill to a flawed exercise. I am also disappointed to say that this examination into election interference has been an unserious exercise. He was appointed to be the “Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference” but a quick review of his mandate shows that his examination of election interference largely consists of talking to the same political leaders and senior officials who have presided over the ineffective and trust eroding decisions that led to the leaks in the first place.
But as disappointing as this box-checking exercise was, even this was an improvement over the Rosenberg Report.
Have you spoken to Morris Rosenberg?
“Did you speak with Morris Rosenberg as part of his independent report on the 2021 election?” I began asking this question to all of my national campaign team officials following the earthshattering February 17th Globe and Mail front page and the Prime Minister’s reliance on the Rosenberg Report in the fallout from these headlines and the building foreign interference scandal. I had heard the name of Morris Rosenberg previously, but only in association with the Trudeau Foundation as I had been raising the issue of inappropriate donations to the Foundation since 2017.
My phone calls following the release of the Report confirmed that no senior Conservative Party officials were interviewed by Rosenberg about the 2021 election. He did not speak to me or my appointed delegate for the Security and Intelligence Threats to Election Task Force (SITE), nor did he speak to my national campaign manager, my Chief of Staff, or the Executive Director of the Conservative Party. I am not sure if Mr. Rosenberg spoke to anyone from the political party that was the principal target of foreign influence in the 2021 election. This alone makes the report one of questionable value.
The content of the report itself is even more concerning because Mr. Rosenberg suggests that he did speak to the Conservative Party. I use the word “suggests” because the report states that “[t]here was an opportunity to meet with representatives of major political parties” (emphasis mine) without stating who he spoke with from each party. Beyond this curious wording, the Rosenberg Report leaves the distinct impression that he spoke to everyone because he makes several all-party references throughout the report. There are multiple references to “interviews with party representatives” in both the summary findings and recommendations. In a few instances, the report actually draws conclusions from these “interviews” stating that “party representatives were pleased with the thoroughness of briefings…” But this is simply false when it comes to the Conservative Party.
None of the central actors from the 2021 Conservative campaign were interviewed for the Rosenberg Report. And the Report was defensively released by the government in the immediate aftermath of damning news reports. This suggests that the Report was used by the Trudeau government as a way to discount or discredit the reports in the Globe and Mail and Global News. Add to that the perceived conflict of interest related to Mr. Rosenberg’s leadership of the Trudeau Foundation, and the Rosenberg Report should not be viewed as credible in any way.
Security and Intelligence Threats to Election Task Force (SITE)
Had Mr. Rosenberg taken the time to consult with the political party targeted by Beijing in the 2021 election, he would have learned that the Conservative Party did have considerable concerns with the SITE process. Reports in recent months lead me to believe that the SITE could not do its job effectively because it was not briefed in the way it should have been ahead of the 2021 election.
If the Prime Minister and the National Security Advisor were not briefed on specific intelligence reports about the flow of money from China to candidates or interactions between Liberal MPs and Chinese diplomatic officials, it is reasonable to infer that the SITE was not briefed on these things either. This gap explains why the SITE was unconcerned about interference by Beijing at the start of the election. They simply were not briefed.
The Critical Election Incident Public Protocol and SITE process was created in 2019 to engage our state agencies and political parties in the mission of strengthening our electoral system. The SITE Panel consists of five senior civil servants leading a panel with the political parties and it makes determinations in accordance with the Protocol with respect to informing the public about interference as it is happening. It is charged with communicating “freely, transparently, and impartially with Canadians during an election in the event of an incident or incidents that threaten the integrity of a federal election”. These civil servants decide whether the public should be informed about a single incident of mischief, misinformation or interference, or a pattern of such conduct.
During the 2021 election, the Conservative Party informed the SITE Panel about the extremely intense foreign influence activities in Richmond, British Columbia and national misinformation campaign on the WeChat platform targeting Chinese Canadians. They did not issue any warning with respect to the veracity of WeChat campaigns or on the ground interference in certain ridings. In my view, this was a critical error. One million Canadians get the majority of their news from WeChat, a platform controlled in Beijing. It is my view that the SITE Panel did not believe any of these instances met the ‘threshold’ for public warning or communication because they had not received a complete picture of the intelligence regarding foreign interference ahead of the election. The SITE Panel had received a curated, partial view of the intelligence and, in my opinion, this is why they were skeptical of reports from the Conservative Party during and after the 2021 election.
I believe that the senior civil servants on the SITE Panel were honourable in their conduct, but they were failed by the system and were not fully briefed. This is similar to reports that have shown the Prime Minister and National Security Advisor were similarly not briefed. The Conservatives tried to be diligent participants in the SITE process. I took the Protocol very seriously and appointed one of my most accomplished and trusted advisors to be the Conservative Party delegate to the process and had my Chief of Staff provide a watching brief to keep me informed. As they informed the Procedure and House Affairs Committee last week, they were not satisfied with the performance of the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol and the SITE process during and following the 2021 election.
Mr. Rosenberg did not interview any of these Conservative Party campaign officials for his Report, nor has Mr. Johnston for his. It was clear by the limited timing for my interview that Mr. Johnston’s views have largely been formed by speaking to the very people that created the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol after the 2019 election and operated it during the 2021 election.
The same system that I believe failed to adequately brief and prepare the SITE Panel is now facilitating the review by David Johnston. Given the avalanche of intelligence leaks stemmed from a lack of confidence in the present system, it shows that the Terms of Reference for David Johnston were flawed and he conducted his review backward. He had his views reinforced before hearing perspectives that would allow him to challenge the status quo. In my view, Johnston was set up to fail because his review was facilitated by the system needing scrutiny. I say this not knowing whether he will recommend a national inquiry tomorrow or not. Politically, he cannot ignore the need for a national inquiry given the nature of the leaks and unanimity of the opposition parties, but practically, his terms of reference led him to conclude that everything is fine because the people running the system told him it is.
Canada needs to get serious when it comes to the issue of foreign interference. Canada needs an independent public inquiry on foreign interference in Canadian politics regardless of whether it is recommended by the Special Rapporteur or not. We must also do more than just a retrospective exercise. We must charge the inquiry with recommending how best to modernize and strengthen the resiliency of our democracy. Opposition parties and diaspora groups must be meaningfully engaged in the selection of the inquiry lead and in setting its terms of reference.
The Globe and Mail intelligence whistleblower who dropped the foreign interference bombshells months ago wrote a powerful essay on his/her motivations for breaking the law. It is worth reflecting upon those words as we start a national conversation on how to safeguard our democracy:
“Months passed, and then years. The threat grew in urgency; serious action remained unforthcoming. I endeavored, alone and with others, to raise concerns about this threat directly to those in a position to hold our top officials to account. Regrettably, those individuals were unable to do so.
In the time that passed, another federal election had come and gone, the threat of interference had grown, and it had become increasingly clear that no serious action was being considered. Worse still, evidence of senior public officials ignoring interference was beginning to mount.”
The Trudeau government cannot be allowed to continue to grade their own homework on this issue any further. The cavalcade of intelligence leaks shows that some of Canada’s leading intelligence officials have lost confidence in the Trudeau government and their response to the 2021 election has my confidence eroding as well. Now is the time to restore confidence in our democracy and its institutions. Now is the time to show Canadians and our allies that Canada is a serious country and that we will valiantly defend our democracy from the attacks upon it.
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