Former Trudeau security adviser says he never saw CSIS report on Chong, criticizes intelligence leaks
PM, ministers have urged CSIS to share more information about MPs
Christian Paas-Lang · CBC News · Posted: May 14, 2023 2:55 PM EDT | Last Updated: May 14
Vincent Rigby, who served as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser from 2020-2021, says he never saw a CSIS report that suggested China was targeting the family of a Canadian MP.
In an interview on Rosemary Barton Live that aired Sunday, Rigby said he had not seen the report by the time of his departure in June 2021.
“I retired June 30, and I would not have seen documents that were produced or distributed after that date, so no, I did not see that document and I was not aware of it,” Rigby told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.
First reported by the Globe and Mail, subsequent disclosures have revealed that China apparently targeted the family of Conservative MP Michael Chong — now serving as the party’s foreign affairs critic — in Hong Kong in retaliation for his sponsorship of a motion condemning China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority as genocide.
Chong revealed that he had heard from the current national security adviser, Jody Thomas, that the report had been sent to one of her predecessors.
Earlier this week, the government expelled the Chinese diplomat allegedly involved in the intimidation scheme, and China responded with its own expulsion of Canada’s envoy in Shanghai. Chong said the expulsion was years late.
“The fact is, we’ve become somewhat of a playground for foreign interference threat activities,” Chong said Monday.
In his brief answers, Rigby said that he would likely soon be appearing before a parliamentary committee studying the foreign interference issue and he would discuss the issue in more depth then.
But he did take a stand against ongoing leaks from intelligence and national security sources to the media, saying he didn’t agree with the framing of those sources as whistleblowers.
“They’re not exposing any wrongful activity, in the classic sense of the term. What they’re doing is undermining Canada’s national security, in my view,” Rigby said.
“I’m really happy we’re finally having a debate about national security in this country … this is not the way to do it, by leaking documents publicly like this, this is not something I condone,” he added.
More MPs contacted
As first reported by the Globe and Mail on Friday, this country’s spy agency is now offering additional briefings to other MPs, including former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and the NDP’s Jenny Kwan.
Under harsh criticism from the opposition that his government has not responded quickly and effectively to the threat of foreign interference, Trudeau has in recent weeks publicly rebuked CSIS for not sharing more information about potential threats to legislators.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino has also called out the agency.
“What I would say is that it’s a serious problem that in July 2021 that neither the prime minister or the public safety minister at the time were briefed directly by CSIS,” Mendicino said earlier this month.
In a separate interview airing Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live, Mendicino said the government was focused on protecting parliamentarians and Canadians from foreign interference.
“It is important that we revisit protocols so that information is put directly before me when it comes to foreign interference in parliamentarians, information is put directly before the prime minister when it comes to the same threat,” he said.
Mendicino said Sunday that the government is still working on its proposal for a foreign agent registry, part of its response to the foreign interference controversy.
He said the government is looking at models like the lobbyist registry, which is searchable by the public, but that consultations are ongoing.
“I would just point out that it’s not a panacea,” Mendicino said. “We also have to make sure we’re putting in place other measures and authorities, but also being transparent and upfront with Canadians about how we’re protecting all of our institutions, including our democracy, from foreign interference.”
Former Harper deputy chief of staff says CSIS never briefed her on foreign interference
Richard Raycraft · CBC News · Posted: May 11, 2023 3:24 PM EDT | Last Updated: May 11
A former top aide to Stephen Harper told a House of Commons committee that CSIS never briefed her on foreign interference when she was deputy chief of staff in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) — but some committee members expressed doubts about her claim.
Jenni Byrne, who served as Harper’s deputy chief of staff from 2013 to 2015, when he was prime minister, testified before the standing committee on procedure and house affairs (PROC) Thursday as part of PROC’s examination of foreign interference in Canadian elections and institutions.
Byrne also was a senior adviser on Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s successful leadership campaign and was the Conservatives’ national campaign manager in the 2015 and 2011 federal elections.
“I can tell you with all certainty that I was never briefed on foreign interference,” Byrne told the committee.
“It never came to mind because there was never any thought that I had that there were foreign actors participating into the election process.”
NDP MP Matthew Green called Byrne’s testimony “highly suspicious.”
“I find that odd,” he said.
“Either you knew and did nothing, or you didn’t know and you’re incompetent — and I’m not saying you’re incompetent because I consider you to be a highly intelligent person so … which one is it?”
Liberal MP Ruby Sahota agreed with Green.
“For you to say today that there was no knowledge, absolutely no knowledge, of this … it really does seem suspicious,” Sahota said.
“Or you’ve built up some type of structure in that time that you were an adviser to Mr. Harper … where you were happy to be ignorant about what was taking place.”
Byrne said the only foreign interference she was aware of during her time at the PMO was foreign funding of Leadnow, a group that promoted strategic voting in the 2015 campaign to oust vulnerable Conservatives. Byrne said Leadnow was partly funded by the Tides Foundation, a United States-based charity dedicated to supporting progressive causes.
She said she learned about the foreign funding through media reports and not through a briefing. She alleged the funding contributed to Conservative defeats in several ridings.
“The only form of foreign interference that I was aware of leading into the 2015 campaign was the Tides funding of Leadnow, that had a Votenow organization which focused on 29 electoral districts, 16 of them being Liberals and 13 of them being New Democrats,” Byrne said.
“And that money, admittedly, Leadnow said that 17 per cent of their funding came from foreign donors.”
The Trudeau government has come under fire over media stories reporting that the Chinese government engaged in a range of interference efforts in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. One Globe and Mail story reported Beijing sought a Liberal minority government in 2021.
A story by Global News, citing national security sources, alleged that Han Dong, the Liberal MP for Don Valley North, was communicating with Chinese government officials and was under Beijing’s influence. Dong has resigned from the Liberal caucus, has denied the allegations and is suing Global over the story.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper asked Byrne what she would do in a similar situation.
“What advice would you have given the prime minister if CSIS briefed you with warnings that a candidate running for the Conservative Party was part of a foreign interference network?” he asked.
Byrne said she would recommend that the candidate be removed.
But several committee members brought up the case of Bob Dechert, a former Conservative MP and former parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs.
In 2011, hacked emails revealed that Dechert had exchanged several flirtatious messages with Shi Rong, a journalist working for the Chinese government news agency Xinhua. The case raised concerns about efforts by Beijing to influence politicians.
Dechert apologized and Harper did not punish him over the matter. Dechert ran again in the 2015 election but was defeated.
Byrne said she was not working in the PMO when the Dechert emails were revealed. She was the Conservative Party’s director of political operations at the time.
“My understanding is there was no briefing regarding Mr. Dechert in terms of what happened in 2011,” Byrne said.
“All I can say is, as the campaign director in 2015, CSIS never informed me or briefed me on any concerns they had with any candidate that ran for the Conservative Party of Canada in the 2015 election campaign.”
Byrne said Harper would have taken a more effective approach to the current controversy surrounding foreign inference.
“I believe Prime Minister Harper, had he been given these allegations, they would have been public and they would have been acted upon,” Byrne said.
She cited the Harper’s government’s expulsion of Iranian diplomats from Canada in 2012 as an example. The government had accused Iran of using its diplomatic assets in Canada for spying.
A source has told Radio-Canada that the federal government will move ahead with a foreign agents’ registry later this year in an effort to combat foreign interference.
Most Chinese diplomats collecting intel: former CSIS official
Michel Juneau-Katsuya, the former chief of CSIS’s Asia-Pacific Unit, told the committee earlier Thursday that the vast majority of Chinese diplomats in Canada are spying.
“It is estimated that 70 per cent of the current staff are performing illegal intelligence duty in Canada,” Juneau-Katsuya said.
“This is a conservative number.”
Earlier this week, the federal government expelled Zhao Wei, a diplomat at the Chinese consulate in Toronto. A security source told the Globe and Mail that Zhao was working on interference efforts targeting Conservative MP Michael Chong and Chong’s family in China.
As of March 16, there were 178 registered diplomats accredited to Beijing’s embassy and consulates in Canada and an additional five accredited to the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal, Global Affairs Canada said last week in response to a question raised in the House of Commons.
Foreign interference is the ‘greatest strategic threat’ facing Canada’s national security, CSIS says
Juneau-Katsuya said he doesn’t lay the blame for Beijing’s level of influence in Canada solely on the current government.
“Today, I want to be very clear — we can prove that every federal government from Mr. Mulroney to Mr. Trudeau have been compromised by agents of the Communist China,” Juneau-Katsuya said.
“Every government [was] informed at one point or another. Every government chose to ignore CSIS warnings either by negligence, self-interest or partisanship.”
With files from John Paul Tasker and The Canadian Press