Trudeau says he's told CSIS to share more intel following report China sought to target MP Chong's family

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he has told Canada's spy agency it needs to share more information about threats to MPs  while being adamant that he only learned of reports that the Chinese government was targeting a Conservative MP and his family this week.

Conservative MP Michael Chong questions PM's handling of the case

Conservative member of Parliament Michael Chong speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 3, 2023.
Conservative member of Parliament Michael Chong speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he directed Canada's spy agency to share more information with the federal government about threats to members of Parliament in response to reports that the Chinese government was looking to target a Conservative MP's family.

But the MP at the centre of the case, Michael Chong, said Trudeau's response raises serious concerns about his grip on intelligence and security matters.

On Monday, the Globe and Mail, citing a 2021 Canadian Security Intelligence Service top-secret document and an anonymous national security source, reported that China's intelligence agency was seeking information about an unnamed Canadian MP's relatives "who may be located in the PRC, for further potential sanctions." 

WATCH | CSIS decided not to brief government about alleged threats: PM

CSIS decided not to brief government about alleged threats: PM

5 months ago
Duration 3:04
Speaking with reporters about his knowledge of alleged threats to a Conservative MP’s family, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he is giving CSIS the directive moving forward that ‘when there are concerns that talk specifically about any MP, particularly about their family’ he needs to be briefed.

The Globe reported that MP was Chong, who was sanctioned by China in 2021 for his support for a parliamentary motion condemning Beijing's conduct in Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China, as genocide. The Globe also said that Zhao Wei, a Chinese diplomat in Canada, was working on this matter.

In the House of Commons, Chong has referred to the actions as "intimidation operations."

The prime minister and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino have both said they only learned about the allegations from Monday's newspaper report and that CSIS didn't previously pass on information.

"We asked what happened to that information, was it ever briefed up out of CSIS? It was not. CSIS made the determination that it wasn't something that needed be raised to a higher level because it wasn't a significant enough concern," Trudeau said Wednesday.

"Even if CSIS doesn't feel that it's a sufficient level of concern for them to take more direct action, we still need to know about it at the upper government level.

Chong said Wednesday that CSIS did give him a "defensive briefing" — a term the agency uses for an educational briefing — but it was general in nature and didn't contain information about Zhao.

WATCH | Chong calls for more information on who knew about alleged threats against his family

MP Michael Chong says 'the government did nothing' after alleged threats from China

5 months ago
Duration 4:27
The Conservative MP demanded more details from government on alleged threats from China against his family. 'Who knew what — and when?'

The Wellington-Halton Hills MP said the whole affair calls into question Trudeau's grip on intelligence and security matters.

"The prime minister and the prime minister alone is responsible for the machinery of government. And for the prime minister not to know about this, not to be interested in this, I think calls into question the PMO's handle on the machinery of government," Chong said.

"If it turns out that the ministers of the Crown were aware of this two years ago and did nothing about it, it suggests political calculations were at play. If ministers of the Crown and their offices were completely unaware of this, this shows an appalling breakdown of leadership on the part of the prime minister."

Former CSIS head says agency should have shared information

Richard Fadden, who was the head of CSIS from 2009 to 2013, told CBC's Power & Politics that he wonders whether the usual process for sharing intelligence was followed in this case.

"CSIS should have shared it," he said. "CSIS doesn't produce intelligence for itself. It produces it for the departments and agencies of the government and for the government itself."

Fadden said CSIS should have shared the information with Trudeau's national security and intelligence adviser, the Department of Public Safety and the RCMP.

"So it's unclear to me why would [CSIS] produce this comprehensive look at this particular issue and not share it outside of CSIS?" he said. "Now, whether or not it went to the prime minister is another question."

CSIS head Richard Fadden waits to testify at the Commons public safety committee on Parliement Hill in Ottawa, Monday July 5, 2010.
Richard Fadden is seen in a July 5, 2010 file photo. He was the head of Canadian Security Intelligence Service from 2009-2013. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Mendicino said he will instruct Canada's intelligence and security agencies to make sure there is "timely and accurate reporting to the government around any threats involving parliamentarians."

The prime minister also said he has been following up on the matter.

"Going forward, we're making it very, very clear to CSIS and all our intelligence officials that when there are concerns that talk specifically about any MP, particularly about their family, those need to be elevated," Trudeau said.

"When it comes to an MP's safety, when it comes to their families' safety, we need to know."

Chong said he made a deliberate decision to sever contact with his family in Hong Kong for their protection.

"I have not spoken to my family in China in years. I, like many many Canadians across the country whose family lives in authoritarian states, have had to face the difficult dilemma of how to protect the family in these authoritarian states," he said.

"So I don't know exactly what is going on and I've chosen to take that decision out of an abundance of caution."

It would be 'silly' to send all intelligence to PM: ex-CSIS head

Ward Elcock, who was director at CSIS from 1994 to 2004, said that his reading of the situation suggests the threat against Chong and his family may not have been "particularly aggressive."

"Targeting can mean a multitude of things. It can the mean that the Chinese simply wanted the individual in the mission to learn more about Mr. Chong all the way up to something much more aggressive," he said.

"But in this case, clearly the view was that it was not something particularly aggressive and that they could take care of it by simply providing defensive briefings to Mr. Chong."

Elcock said it would be "pointless" for the intelligence agency to pass on every piece of information to the government of the day.

A Canadian Security Intelligence Service sign in pictured on a sunny day.
A sign is shown outside the Canadian Security Intelligence Service building in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"There is a perception that everything that CSIS knows should be passed up the chain. Doesn't work that way. CSIS knows a lot of things, some of which aren't particularly important for the government to know at any particular point in time," he said.

"Some things do need to go to the government and the magic is making the right decisions at the right time to get the information that needs to go up to the government. Does all the information need to go up? That is silly."

Fadden said the prime minister's request that CSIS share all information about threats to MP is "a dangerous thing to ask for." He suggested that the government instead provide CSIS with more guidance on the threshold, and even make that guidance public.

NDP asks for briefing on MP threats

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, speaking with reporters on Parliament Hill before Trudeau did, said he's not convinced the national security service would keep such threats quiet.

"I find it very hard to believe that CSIS would produce a document about a Canadian MP's family being threatened because of a vote on the floor of the House of Commons and that they wouldn't tell the prime minister or his top public safety minister," he said.

WATCH | Next steps in Chong situation? Poilievre details expectations from government

Next steps in Chong situation? Poilievre details expectations from government

5 months ago
Duration 1:20
Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre says he wants the Liberal cabinet to explain when it knew about threats from Beijing that were made to Conservative MP Michael Chong.

"This is insane. You know, if any one of you were to threaten the family of an MP because of a vote in the house of commons, you would be in jail. This guy's not only not in jail, he's in Canada with diplomatic immunity."

On Thursday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh wrote to Trudeau asking him to meet with opposition leaders "to outline how such threats are received by you and the Minister of Public Safety, what you do with this information and how MPs are kept informed."

"I believe that this is an issue that could impact all Members of Parliament. Any MP could be subject to similar threats. There are members in all our caucuses who have loved ones in countries where they may be subject to threats. I am therefore asking you to urgently meet with all opposition leaders," Singh wrote.

"Canadians' faith in their democracy has been shaken by your failure to call a public inquiry into foreign interference as every opposition leader has repeatedly demanded."

Trudeau appointed former governor general David Johnston as a special rapporteur to look into how Canada and its intelligence agencies have handled the problem.

Johnston has been asked to make a decision about whether an inquiry is needed by May 23.

Fadden said he hopes Johnston recommends one.

"The matter has become so politicized, it's become an object of partisan tennis, back and forth," he said.

CSIS is responsible for advising the federal government on security matters but is strictly constrained in terms of who can view its classified and operational information.

In the past, CSIS director David Vigneault has said he believes the agency's enabling law is undermining his officials' ability to spread warnings.

"Our act enables advice to government but limits our ability to provide relevant advice to key partners," he said in a 2021 speech.


    Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca

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