No public inquiry into foreign interference: Special rapporteur Johnston to undertake ‘public hearings’
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Updated May 23, 2023 4:03 p.m. EDT
Published May 23, 2023 6:03 a.m. EDT
OTTAWA – A public process is required on the issue of foreign interference, special rapporteur David Johnston says, but not in the form of a public inquiry.
Instead, Johnston announced Tuesday that he plans to hold “a series of public hearings with Canadians” to shine more light on the “problem of foreign interference” and inform the public and policymakers on the threat it poses, and ways to address it with urgency.
After months of political scrutiny from an opposition united in their calls for an independent and open airing of the facts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has come out in full support of Johnston’s decision to sidestep an inquiry, continuing to assert his government has, and will continue to handle the issue with the seriousness it deserves.
“Foreign governments are undoubtedly attempting to influence candidates and voters in Canada,” Johnston writes in his first report in the role of special rapporteur. “Much has been done already, but considerably more remains to be done to strengthen our capacity to resist foreign interference.”
Rather than advising the federal government to strike a public inquiry and appoint someone else to lead it, the former governor general intends to do the work himself in the five remaining months of his mandate.
During these hearings Johnston says he plans to speak to and hear from Canadians — particularly those in diaspora communities — as well as current and former government officials, knowledgeable experts, and “other interested parties” about foreign interference and ways to improve Canada’s response to it.
“This will be a public process, but not a public inquiry, as I do not need the subpoena powers provided by the Inquiries Act to gather this information and encourage public attention on these matters,” Johnston wrote in his report.
Speaking to reporters following the report’s release, Johnston acknowledged his conclusion would be met with skepticism by some, but said the challenge is that what allowed him to determine whether there has been interference “cannot be disclosed publicly,” Johnston said. “A public review of classified intelligence simply cannot be done.”
Johnston said his conclusion that a public inquiry is unnecessary was informed by speaking to dozens of high-level federal officials, cabinet ministers and MPs, as well as examining first-hand a “large collection” of documents.
And while there appears to be a “lack of accountability” around who receives certain pieces of intelligence that needs addressing, despite what Johnston characterized as “too much posturing, and ignoring facts in favour of slogans,” he said he couldn’t identify any instances of the prime minister negligently failing to take the issue seriously.
As a result, he said a public inquiry at this stage would “not advance the goals of transparency or trust any further than I have taken them, and raise expectations that will ultimately be disappointed.”
Johnston’s intention with the hearings is not to focus on “who knew what and what did they do about it” because he feels these questions are covered in this initial public report, as well as a confidential annex provided to the prime minister, cabinet, and security-cleared opposition party officials.
Johnston was tapped in March by Trudeau to examine whether a public inquiry or other “mechanisms or transparent processes” such as a judicial review were necessary.
This move stemmed from heightened public concerns over alleged election meddling by China during the last two federal campaigns, prompted by reporting largely based on intelligence leaks.
Noting the mixed views among Canadians and experts around a public inquiry, Trudeau had vowed that the Liberals would “abide by” Johnston’s guidance around whether an inquiry was needed, and respond to any other recommendations.
Responding to the report on Parliament Hill Tuesday, Trudeau said he welcomed Johnston’s hearing plans, and confirmed he won’t be launching a public inquiry.
Trudeau said he’s reached out to the opposition party leaders offering them security clearances to review the relevant intelligence on which Johnston has based his findings.
“I think everyone can agree with the? former governor general’s assessment that all leaders must work from a common understanding of true facts,” Trudeau said.
WHAT CONCLUSIONS DID JOHNSTON REACH?
In addition to the question of an inquiry, Johnston’s 55-page interim report dives into the issue of foreign interference more broadly, examines what was alleged and the voracity of related reporting in nine specific cases, what he learned from speaking to those involved, and steps taken to counter and communicate about foreign interference.
In Tuesday’s report, Johnston includes four additional initial conclusions:
More needs to be done to counter the unquestioned attempts by foreign governments to interfere in Canadian affairs;
When viewed in full context with all relevant intelligence “several leaked materials that raised legitimate questions turn out to have been misconstrued in some media reports”;
There are “serious shortcomings in the way intelligence is communicated and processed from security agencies through to government,” but no examples of ministers or the prime minister “knowingly or negligently failing to act” have been identified; and
His findings should be referred to and reviewed by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the National Security and Intelligence Review Committee (NSIRA), and both oversight bodies should report publicly if they disagree.
“What I’ve tried to emphasize in the area of intelligence, one is dealing with different pieces of information. We used the analogy of painting a picture. It’s a number of different brushstrokes, you must have most or all of them together before you have picture,” Johnston said. “Those leaks were based on partial information and in our investigation… based on open information and more particularly, classified information, we came to the conclusion that there was not negligence on the part of any of the ministers or the prime minister, nor malfeasance in the sense of attempting to twist this for partisan advantage.”
“What there was, is a system that is not functioning effectively and how we manage that intelligence, how it crystallizes into something… and then into some recommendation for action. Our system was not producing that in the way it should… We have much to do to be much more effective, much more professional, much more harmonized. And that’s where we hope to spend a good deal of time—including [during the] public hearings—in the second part of our mandate,” Johnston continued during his Tuesday press conference.
WHY NOT A PUBLIC INQUIRY?
Johnston revealed Tuesday that when Trudeau appointed him, his “preliminary view” was that he was “very likely” to recommend a public inquiry.
After considering whether a public inquiry would enhance public trust in Canada’ electoral process, Johnston said the sensitive material and information that would “lie at the heart” of whether the federal government did enough to confront the claims of interference, cannot be aired publicly.
While noting the value public inquiries can and have had — pointing to the most recent Public Order Emergency Commission focused on the “Freedom Convoy” — Johnston said, in this case, it would not be able to provide the benefits of a full airing of the facts as others have.
“Instead, I would be handing off a problem to someone else, without solving it, or even providing a process by which the problem could be solved. This would prolong, but not enhance, the process,” Johnston said.
Over the last six months, a series of senior federal security officials have testified publicly before parliamentary committees that while attempts were made to meddle, the integrity of Canada’s elections were upheld, while expressing the limitations of what they’d be able to say in an open forum.
Johnston said that as a result of these well-founded and required national security constraints and secrecy oaths, any “credible” inquiry would not be able to be public at all, calling what the leakers have done “wrong” and “damaging” to the confidence Canadians are supposed to have in those entrusted with this information.
Asked a few ways by different reporters whether his public hearings will be just as constrained in substantive outcomes as an inquiry, and if he’s essentially asking Canadians to take his word for what he’s found while looking behind closed doors or at secret documents, Johnston pointed to the ongoing work of the parliamentary probes and other intelligence bodies examining the issue.
“This is a problem in that one can’t divulge everything that Canadians would like to know,” Johnston said.
OPPOSITION STILL WANT INQUIRY
Deciding against recommending a public inquiry, and further, deciding to take on the public hearings himself — given the heightened politicization surrounding his appointment — was quickly met with considerable ire from the opposition parties who have ardently been pushing for an independent airing of the facts.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre panned Johnston’s findings, and said he doesn’t trust Johnston to conduct the public hearings.
“He has no business in this job because it is a fake job that he is incapable of doing impartially. None of his recommendations can be taken seriously because he’s in a conflict of interest,” Poilievre said, adding Conservatives will continue to push for a public inquiry, and a foreign influence registry.
Johnston did not meet with Poilievre over the course of his probe, but Johnston did meet with former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole — who led the party during the 2021 general election.
O’Toole wrote Tuesday morning that his meeting with Johnston last week left him with the impression that the interaction was “nothing more than a box checking exercise.”
But, Johnston said Tuesday he reached out to O’Toole for a meeting after several failed attempts to sit down with Poilievre, and that the former Conservatives leader’s contributions were considered “with care.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Johnston’s decision to not call for a public inquiry was “incredibly disappointing,” and said he will continue to push for one.
“We thank Mr. Johnston for his investigation but there are still unanswered questions that could be responsibly addressed by a public inquiry,” Singh said. “While public meetings can be useful, the powers of a public inquiry are more rigorous… We firmly believe Canadians would benefit from a fulsome, public investigation that maintains the integrity of our intelligence that must be kept confidential.”
Bloc Québécois MP and democratic institutions spokesperson Alain Therrien told reporters Tuesday it’s a “big day for the Chinese government, and a big day for Justin Trudeau, a sad day for Quebec and Canadian democracy.”
Therrien questioned Johnston for largely laying the blame at the feet of the media and CSIS for allegations of foreign interference, while absolving the Liberal government. He said his party is still calling for a public inquiry, and that Johnston’s claims it would be too difficult to hold such an inquiry without divulging classified information are “false.”
Johnston’s appointment has been controversial from the outset, with opposition parties questioning the former debates commissioner’s impartiality and potential conflict of interest given his long-standing close connection to the Trudeau family and his past membership status with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation that’s faced scrutiny over a China-linked donation.
Addressing these concerns head-on on Tuesday, Johnston sought to clarify the “basic facts” about their relationship and the extent they’ve been in contact since Trudeau took office, as well as his involvement with the Trudeau Foundation.
Johnston said Tuesday that he’s been appointed to dozens of public leadership positions on boards and such over the years, by politicians across the political spectrum, noting that the current fervour around his role if it continues, may have a chilling effect on other publicly-minded individuals from stepping into similar positions in the future.
“I’ve been fortunate in my public life to have served as chair of, or a member of an advisory committee, or task forces, on probably two to three dozen different occasions over the years… and in none of those previous occasions has my impartiality or integrity ever been questioned. This is the first time it has happened. And let me simply say that’s very troubling for me, because this kind of baseless set of accusations diminishes trust in our public institutions,” Johnston said.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR JOHNSTON’S WORK?
Tuesday’s report from Johnston was not meant to be the end of his work on the file. He was already mandated to spend the months ahead continuing to take a more all-encompassing look at the issue of foreign interference and the integrity of Canada’s democracy and report on his further findings.
Johnston said he hopes to begin the hearings “at the earliest possible date” and plans to issue a second report based on what he hears, while taking on “a number of critical issues” up until Oct. 31, 2023.
In addition to the hearings, Johnston said he wants to look into the challenges of using classified intelligence in law enforcement, and how it might be addressed. He will also review the role and structure NSICOP, the way intelligence is funneled to top officials, and will suggest amendments to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act “that might assist in fighting foreign interference.
“I will also review the merits of a government-led process for declassification of information to enhance transparency and look at the case for a national security committee of cabinet,” Johnston added during his press conference. “And I will examine the issue of how the government deals with threats against elected officials. Canadians need to understand the threat this issue presents and the mechanisms needed to address it.”
With files from CTV News’ Spencer Van Dyk