CSIS boss defends 'foreign interference' comments

CSIS director Richard Fadden has testified before a House committee, answering criticism of his candid interview with CBC News by saying it's "good public policy" for Canadians to be more informed about threats.
Richard Fadden, the director of CSIS, waits to testify at the Commons public safety committee on Parliement Hill in Ottawa on Monday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canadian Security Intelligence Service director Richard Fadden says he has no intention of resigning after facing mounting criticism for his candid interview with CBC News in June.

The House of Commons public safety and national intelligence committee reconvened for a rare summer sitting to question Fadden.

During a two-hour grilling, Fadden told the committee that it's "good public policy" for Canadians to be more informed about "foreign interference" threats.

"My comments did not in any way threaten national security," he told the public safety committee regarding his suggestion that some Canadian politicians are being influenced by foreign governments. He added he "would not offer such detail again," but firmly said he stood behind his comments.

The CSIS head was called to the specially convened House of Commons committee session to answer questions about his comments in a CBC News interview that aired last month, just as world leaders began arriving for the G8/G20 summits.

In an exclusive interview with the CBC that aired on June 22, Fadden said foreign governments hold influence over at least two cabinet ministers in two provinces, and are also involved with municipal politicians in B.C. and federal public servants. He did not provide any names, but implied that China was one of those foreign governments.

At committee Monday, Fadden continued to refuse to reveal to whom he was referring and which provinces are involved, citing operational procedure. When opposition MPs on the committee argued that by refusing to do so, he was tainting all politicians, Fadden disagreed, saying the MPs are "exaggerating."

"We are dealing here with a spectrum of behaviour by foreign entities that often start out innocently but later veer toward something that actually harms Canadian interests," he told the committee. "This is a very subtle process."

Fadden told the committee he will name the politicians CSIS is concerned about, but only to the minister to whom he reports. In a statement issued after Fadden's testimony, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said he has no comment, noting that Fadden's testimony speaks for itself.

During the CBC interview, Fadden also said the agency was in the process of discussing with the Privy Council Office the best way to inform the provinces of concern that there may be a problem.

The Prime Minister's Office later issued a statement saying it had "no knowledge of these matters."

Fadden followed up with a "clarification" after the interview aired, saying he had not informed anyone in the PMO or the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic wing of the PMO, about the specific threats.

Promises report

At committee Monday, Fadden clarified further that he did bring up the cases with the prime minister's national security adviser, seeking advice on how to proceed if CSIS were to find any undue influence on the provincial officials.

Fadden: at the analysis stage. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

When asked at committee if he thought he should step down as director of CSIS, Fadden said, "I don't agree. I don't think there is a reason to. I revealed one small detail … which as I've said, I regret, but no, I will not be stepping down."

Fadden also testified that since the CBC interview, he has spoken with Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, promising a report on the specific cases to which he referred, once CSIS has completed such a report.

"The information, the intelligence has been gathered. We are now at the analysis stage," Fadden said.

Shortly after the CBC interview aired, experts questioned the wisdom of going public with the allegations while that process is underway.

Committee MPs also questioned Fadden about whether he had the authority to make such revelations.

Fadden said he did in terms of giving out general information, although he also conceded that what he communicated was co-ordinated with the government, but not with the public safety minister.

"If you look at our website, if you look at our annual reports, if you look at a variety of things that both I and other officers of the service have done over the years, this is not quite as extraordinary as everyone is making it out to be," said Fadden.

Fadden first revealed concerns over specific politicians being influenced after a speech to the Royal Canadian Military Institute in March, at which the CBC was filming. Fadden says he "lost track" of the fact that CBC was filming once the question and answer period got started. He said when his comments were brought up in the CBC one-on-one interviews, he felt compelled to answer questions about them.

Committee members grilled him about his choice to bring up such information at a "black tie" event, but while Fadden said he would not do so again, he maintained that the details he did offer were not "state secrets."

In his CBC interview, Fadden also said a big concern was whether there is a terrorist cell in Canada that CSIS doesn't know about. When asked about the comment at committee, Fadden said:

"We have had very clear evidence in this country that there have been terrorists seeking to do harm .… We're monitoring a number of other cases where we think there are similar circumstances. Do I think that everybody needs to go into their basements with an 18-day supply of food? Absolutely not."

Fadden said he simply thinks if Canadians know more about the existence of such a threat, they might be in a position to let CSIS know if they see anything worrisome.

With files from The Canadian Press