MP Dechert questioned on emails to Chinese journalist
A parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was told to account for things he said to a friend who works for China's state-controlled news agency, a government source says.
The source didn't elaborate on details of the accounting Bob Dechert had to give.
Dechert, a Toronto-area Conservative MP, has acknowledged sending emails to Shi Rong, a reporter with the Xinhua News Agency. Although the messages are flirtatious in nature, the MP for Mississauga-Erindale described his relationship with the female journalist as an "innocent" friendship.
It was not immediately clear who in government Dechert gave his accounting to on the matter.
A former senior intelligence official with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service said it is possible security officials would be involved in any questioning of the MP about his relationship with Shi.
"CSIS would have right away saw the red flag up," said Michel Juneau-Katsuya, who now heads a private corporate security company.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has two parliamentary secretaries. Dechert's responsibilities are for North America, not Asia, the government source said.
Access to secrets limited
The main role of parliamentary secretaries is to answer questions in the House of Commons when the minister is absent. They don't normally have access to secret cabinet-level information, and the only information Dechert likely had were briefing notes to answer Opposition queries in Question Period, the source said Saturday.
Another government source confirmed that Dechert does not handle Asia-Pacific matters, and said there is no record of him being briefed on anything related to China.
Shi declined comment when reached by telephone Saturday. "Sorry, I cannot say anything now," she said before hanging up.
Xinhua, created by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1930s to handle revolutionary propaganda, has grown into a multimedia empire with offices across the world and throughout China. It is run by Chinese government in Beijing.
It is also widely known in western intelligence agencies as having links to Chinese intelligence services, Juneau-Katsuya said in an interview Saturday.
"We have tons of cases where journalists working under the cover or for this [news agency] were used as intelligence officers and agents," he said.
Dechert, whose website says he is married, took on his parliamentary secretary role with Baird after the May 2 election. Before the election, he was parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice.
The fact that Dechert is not on the government's front benches does not make the security implications any less significant, said Juneau-Katsuya. "You're not Mr Joe Blow that has no consequences on society, you are in a position of influence … and some people will try to get access to you," he said.
He noted general concerns that have been raised in the past by CSIS director Richard Fadden. A memo from Fadden that was made public this year warned of the threat of foreign interference from countries out to influence policy and politicians.
Canadians singled out by unfriendly powers may be "subject to threats, coercion or potential blackmail," warned the memo to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
Fadden cited Canada's natural resources, scientific and technological sectors and its influence in the international community as reasons for it being a target of foreign influence.' In a media interview in 2010, Fadden was cagey about the countries involved, but did not deny that China was a country of concern.
Chinese intelligence officials are very skilled in how they gather information, Juneau-Katsuya said.
"The Chinese intelligence services do not work on the strategic plan based on months or years. They literally work on generations sometime," he said. "They plant a seed today knowing that it will maybe just harvest in 10 years if need be."
The flirtatious emails in question reportedly dated back to 2010.
The Globe and Mail reported earlier that Shi said her husband had hacked her email account.
According to the Globe, an April 17, 2010 email from Dechert says: "You are so beautiful. I really like the picture of you by the water with your cheeks puffed. That look is so cute, I love it when you do that. Now, I miss you even more." Another email sent April 19, 2010 urged Shi to watch a vote in the House of Commons. "I will smile at you. I miss you. Love, Bob."
The Prime Minister's Office said there is nothing to suggest Dechert acted inappropriately.
"Mr. Dechert has denied any inappropriate behaviour," spokesman Andrew MacDougall reiterated in an email Saturday. "We have no information to suggest otherwise."
Juneau-Katsuya pointed to two other embarrassing situations for the Conservative government.
In 2008, Maxime Bernier, the foreign affairs minister, had to resign after it was revealed he left some secret cabinet papers at the home of his girlfriend. Earlier this year it was revealed that Bruce Carson, a former senior aide to Harper, once brought a reported ex-prostitute and money-launderer to a party at 24 Sussex Drive to meet with the prime minister.
Taken together, the incidents raise questions about the judgment of officials in the Prime Minister's Office, Juneau-Katsuya says.
"We've got an issue definitely here in the Prime Minister's Office … do people sort of have common sense to realize what is a danger for Canada and what is not."
The story has captured the attention of the Chinese-language media in Canada. Ming Pao Daily News and the World Journal published stories about Dechert's emails.