Elizabeth May frustrated by lack of detail in top secret documents on foreign interference

Green Party co-leader Elizabeth May says she is unable to decide whether former special rapporteur David Johnston's conclusions on foreign interference were reasonable because she hasn't been permitted to review all of the top-secret documents he cited to support his conclusions.

May says she is unable to decide whether David Johnston's findings were reasonable

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023.
Green Party Co-Leader Elizabeth May, seen at a press conference on Parliament Hill Friday, said there was not enough detail in the top secret documents she reviewed to conclude whether or not special rapporteur David Johnston's conclusions on foreign interference were reasonable or not. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press )

Green Party Co-Leader Elizabeth May is expressing frustration with the level of information contained in the two top-secret documents on foreign interference she was permitted to review this week.

May received top-secret security clearance and reviewed the documents compiled by former special rapporteur David Johnston on Wednesday.

"I can't conclude that David Johnston's conclusions were reasonable, nor can I conclude they are unreasonable," May told a press conference Friday morning.

She said she was not allowed to review the documents Johnston cited to support the conclusions in his 20-page summary report.

"The citations and footnotes were to documents described by a title of the memo, the author of a memo, the date and often the designation of how top-secret that document is, and a page number," said May.

Media reports published earlier this year — many based on leaked intelligence and anonymous national security sources — raised questions about the government's handling of China's alleged interference activities in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

Under pressure to strike a public inquiry, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Johnston as special rapporteur to investigate the extent and impact of foreign interference on Canada's electoral processes.

Before resigning from that role, Johnston issued his first report and recommended against calling a public inquiry.

A man in a dark suit answers questions in a television studio.
In exclusive interview with CBC's Power & Politics, special rapporteur on foreign interference David Johnston says claims that he is biased are based on 'false' allegations. (Toni Choueiri/CBC)

Johnston wrote that he had included a "confidential annex to my report that addresses the major media allegations in detail and includes citations to the intelligence documents and other products that led me to my conclusions."

"The purpose of this confidential annex is to permit individuals holding appropriate Top Secret security clearance to review my conclusions and judge whether they are warranted based on the full information contained in the annex," Johnston wrote.

"A document that is laboriously referenced but unavailable does not help me do what David Johnston said we'd be able to do, which was to see how he formed his conclusions and add whether we agree or disagree that his conclusions were reasonable," said May.

May told reporters she has asked the Privy Council Office whether she can review the documents cited by Johnston and is waiting for a response.

CBC News has reached out to the Privy Council Office for comment.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also has received top secret security clearance. He said Thursday he's working on scheduling a time to review the documents "as soon as possible."

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet have both declined to review the documents, arguing the top secret security clearance would prevent them from speaking about the allegations publicly.

May wants leakers caught

May said she agrees with Johnston on the need to identify and hold accountable those who leaked national security documents and information to the media.

"Foreign state interference in our electoral process is a threat to democracy. So is interference in our political process from agencies of the state," said May.

The Globe and Mail published an anonymous opinion piece in March attributed to a "national security official." Editor-in-Chief David Walmsley said the unnamed official provided the revelations that "formed the backbone" of the paper's news stories on foreign interference.

A self-described whistleblower, the national security official wrote that they chose to discuss the threat of foreign interference with Canadian journalists because "evidence of senior public officials ignoring interference was beginning to mount." 

"We don't know their motives. We don't know who they are and they seem to think that they can be protected by their own narrative that they're whistleblowers," said May. "I don't buy it.

"Every Canadian should care to ensure that our security and intelligence establishment be reliable, that the people who work there take their oath seriously."


Brennan MacDonald

Parliamentary bureau

Brennan MacDonald is a producer for CBC's national television program Power & Politics.