Foreign enemies 'increasingly targeting Canada,' Privy Council warns new minister
Memo says interference beyond the electoral cycle will require 'focused attention'
The 2019 election might be long over, but Canada is "increasingly" a target for foreign interference, warns a briefing note prepared for President of the Privy Council Dominic Leblanc.
The heavily redacted package of briefing notes, drafted for the New Brunswick MP around the time of his swearing-in last November, also points to potential "gaps" in the way Canada responded to the fall election.
As part of his new job at the cabinet table, Leblanc is responsible for supporting Canada's democratic institutions — a role that had its own ministry last session.
While the briefing document is filled with bureaucratic jargon, the warning jumps off the page.
"Foreign adversaries and competitors are increasingly targeting Canada in order to advance their own economic and national security interests," says the 150-page briefing binder, obtained through access to information.
"Canada, like the majority of Western democracies, is a target of foreign state efforts to interfere with or damage our democratic processes (cyber and non cyber)."
"The word 'increasing' is actually very important here," said former national security analyst Stephanie Carvin, now an associate professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.
"It suggests that there may be some metrics by which they're measuring these things to suggest that, in fact, there's more attacks in new ways, perhaps even novel attacks that we're seeing. So that is something that jumps out to me in this report."
The redacted briefing note doesn't name the foreign adversaries.
In the lead-up to the Oct. 21 election, sources told CBC News that Canada's intelligence services were carefully monitoring attempts by six countries — China, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela — to influence the federal election. Top Canadian officials also were warned last year that China and India could try to use their links to diaspora communities in Canada to advance their own agendas.
Traditional spying still 'the greatest danger': CSIS
Carvin said those countries are likely still on the list of engaged adversaries, along with Russia and other states in the Middle East.
"Really, there's a range of interests that foreign actors are interested in. They're interested in targeting our energy sector, oil and gas. They're also interested in just discrediting our democracy and democratic processes," she said.
"In some ways, [they want to] just whip up anger and dissent about a number of issues to get Canadians angry at each other."
John Townsend, a spokesperson for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said that over the years CSIS has seen multiple instances of foreign states targeting specific communities in Canada through human intelligence operations, the use of state-sponsored or foreign-influenced media and cyberattacks.
"Traditional interference by foreign espionage remains the greatest danger, but interference using cyber means continues to be a growing concern," he said in an email to CBC.
In 2018, CSIS Director David Vigneault gave a speech to the Economic Club of Canada pointing out that the scale, speed, range and impact of foreign interference has grown as a result of the internet.
'Gaps' in election response
In an attempt to prevent foreign meddling, the federal government set up an internal team — the "critical election incident public protocol panel" — to publicly sound the alarm if it saw evidence the October federal election was being undermined. It never did.
In the days immediately after the federal election, government officials said they did detect attempts to spread misinformation and disinformation during the election campaign — but not at a level high enough to trigger a public warning.
Ottawa also set up a special task force, known as SITE, which brought together Canada's national security and intelligence agencies: CSIS, the Communications Security Establishment and the RCMP.
Both teams met regularly throughout the election. The security and intelligence community provided several threat briefings to political parties and ran tabletop exercises, according to the documents.
The briefing binder mentions "remaining gaps" in the way Canada responded to the election, but the examples were blacked out in the redacted pages.
A declassifed report is expected in the coming months.
The briefing package told LeBlanc that, given the pressing timeline of the campaign, most of the government's pre-election pro-democracy initiatives focused exclusively on the election itself, "leaving broader issues of countering interference in Canada's democratic institutions — i.e. public servants and government, politicians and political parties, media, the judiciary and others — aside.
"Interference in democratic institutions beyond the electoral cycle will require focused attention."
A spokesperson for CSE, Canada's foreign signal intelligence agency, said threats continue to change over time.
"Traditional hostile foreign threats have been persistent over the years, but they are now taking advantage of evolutions in technology," said Evan Koronewski.
"However, as these threats evolve, so do our abilities to detect them and take preventative action."
Disinformation should still be a source of concern, says the government memo, but fact-checking and traditional journalism have been helpful so far in debunking and correcting misinformation.
"While these efforts have been sufficient up to this point, a more fractured and divided Canada could make countering misinformation and disinformation more difficult."
"I think Canadians should always be concerned," said Carvin. "What we've seen in the past, say in 2016, is not what we saw in 2019. It might not be what we see in the future. Canada isn't immune to these trends."
LeBlanc was not available for an interview.
"We will continue to be vigilant in combatting any threat. Ensuring the security of our democratic processes is a priority for our government," said a spokesperson for his office.