Johnston says no to public inquiry on foreign interference
Prime Minister Trudeau said government will follow the recommendation and not call an inquiry
David Johnston has recommended against calling a public inquiry into foreign interference in Canadian politics. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the government will follow that recommendation.
Johnston's decision comes after all opposition parties have called for an inquiry and after the government itself said it would support one — if Johnston recommended it.
"When I began this process, I thought I would come to the same conclusion — that I would recommend a public inquiry," Johnston said in a news conference Tuesday.
"While it would have been an easy choice, it would not be the correct one."
Johnston, appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a special rapporteur on foreign interference in March in response to the furor over Chinese government interference, has spent the last two months reviewing documents and interviewing policymakers.
Johnston also defended his impartiality in response to attacks from Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre citing Johnston's relationship with the Trudeau family and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.
While he isn't recommending a public inquiry, Johnston said in his report he did find "serious shortcomings in the way intelligence is communicated and processed from security agencies through to government."
Johnston said he'll continue his work as special rapporteur through to October by holding hearings to find ways to fix those shortcomings. He said he will produce a second report later this year.
"The public process should focus on strengthening Canada's capacity to detect, deter and counter foreign interference in our elections and the threat such interference represents to our democracy," Johnston said in his report tabled Tuesday.
Johnston said he found no ethical fault with the way the federal government handled foreign interference.
"I have found that the narrative that the government failed to act is not a fair conclusion based on the facts," Johnston said. "However, the machinery of government needs significant improvement to address the evolving threat of foreign interference."
Johnston has asked the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) — an independent government agency — and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), a joint parliamentary committee, to review his conclusions.
Johnston's five conclusions:
- That foreign governments are attempting to influence political candidates and voters, and that more needs to be done combat these attempts
- That much of the media reporting on foreign interference raised legitimate questions but did not have full context and as a result was misconstrued by journalists
- That there are "serious" shortcomings in how security agencies relay information to the government and there's no evidence the prime minister or his minister knowingly failed to act on intelligence, advice and recommendations
- That a process other than a public inquiry is required to examine foreign interference, including public hearings on the issues the report has identified
- That the conclusions in his report should go to NSIRA and NSICOP for review, and that those bodies should report publicly if they reach different conclusions.
Government won't call inquiry: Trudeau
Trudeau said the government will follow Johnston's recommendations and will not call a public inquiry, despite the pressure from opposition parties.
"I committed to listening very carefully and abiding by the recommendations that the former governor general made," Trudeau told a news conference Tuesday.
"[Johnston] explained and justified his thought processes by it, and we will be following his recommendations."
WATCH | Trudeau says government 'will be following' David Johnston's recommendations
Trudeau said he's sent letters to other party leaders offering to get them security clearances so that they can review the intelligence Johnston accessed in putting together the report.
"I certainly hope that all party leaders will avail themselves of the opportunity to understand the facts of the situation as we continue important debates on how to best keep Canadians, our businesses, our research institutions and especially our democracy safe," Trudeau said.
Trudeau acknowledged that he saw Johnston "a few times as a kid" and that he got to know him after entering politics, when Johnston was governor general, but said he has total confidence that Johnston can continue to work as special rapporteur.
Attempts to intimidate and influence
Citing unnamed national security sources, the Globe and Mail and Global News have reported on a range of influence and interference operations coming from Beijing, particularly during the 2019 and 2021 elections.
They include attempts to intimidate and influence members of Parliament, funding political candidates and operating so-called "police stations" across Canada to intimidate dissidents.
Johnston said that, while the threat of foreign interference is real and Ottawa should address it, he found much of the media reporting on the issue was "misconstrued" and devoid of context after he reviewed the relevant intelligence.
Johnston was particularly critical of the person or people behind the national security leaks.
"Any responsible intelligence professional knows how destructive and dangerous leaks can be," Johnston said. "It is a matter of urgency that all efforts be made to identify and hold the leaker(s) responsible. Malice cannot be ruled out."
The RCMP is investigating the source or sources of the leaks.
Johnston was also critical of how intelligence agencies, including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), share intelligence with the federal government.
"The materials are disseminated, but no one keeps track of who specifically received or read them," Johnston said. "This means there can be intelligence that is 'sent' to various consumers, but it does not always actually get consumed."
Johnston also found gaps in the ways agencies and federal government departments share information.
He said the fact that Canada is seen as a target for foreign interference "is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.
"Foreign adversaries see our free, open and democratic society, and seek to undermine it."
Johnston says inquiry not best way forward
All opposition parties have called for a public inquiry into foreign election interference. The Liberal government said it would call one if Johnston recommended it.
A public inquiry would be able to hold public hearings, subpoena witnesses and produce a report. It would be led by a former judge.
But Johnston said he thinks an inquiry isn't the best way to address foreign interference and problems with intelligence.
"A person leading a Public Inquiry would be unlikely to learn more about who knew what, when, and what was done with [intelligence] than has been made available to me," Johnston said.
"Duplicating this effort would not be productive and would lead to delay in addressing the issues."
Johnston added that the sensitivity of the intelligence would create difficulties for a public inquiry, and the fact that he found the government did not commit any wrongdoing weakens the case for an inquiry.
"The failures I have found relate to substantial gaps in the communication and processing of intelligence information as opposed to the prime minister, ministers or senior officials ignoring intelligence or recommendations," Johnston said.
"A further review of the specific media allegations through a public inquiry would not advance our ability to amend these arrangements and strengthen our institutional capacity to detect, deter and counter foreign interference."
Rapporteur disputes media reports
Johnston did not substantiate many of the allegations made in the media about Beijing's foreign interference.
With respect to a Global News story that said the Chinese government gave $250,000 to 11 candidates in the 2019 federal election, Johnston said there is "limited" evidence the Chinese government intended to provide funding for seven Liberal and four Conservative candidates through a community organization and an unnamed Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP.
He added there's no evidence Beijing followed through with the plan, or that the candidates, including the MPP, ever received any money.
A story by Global News, citing an unnamed national security source, said Liberal MP Han Dong advised an official at the Chinese consulate in Toronto to lengthen the detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians the Chinese government had detained.
"The allegation is false. Mr. Dong discussed the 'two Michaels' with a PRC official but did not suggest to the official that the PRC extend their detention," Johnston said.
Johnston said there were "irregularities" involving the Toronto Chinese Consulate and Dong's nomination as the Liberal candidate in the Don Valley North riding, but he added he found no evidence Dong was aware of this.
Trudeau on Tuesday did not rule out welcoming Dong back to the Liberal caucus.
"The report by Mr. Johnston was fairly unequivocal that there were false allegations made against Mr. Dong," Trudeau said.
"I look forward to having conversations with him. He decided to step away from caucus in order to clear his name. I will hear from him on what his thinking is going forward."
Canada recently expelled a diplomat, Zhao Wei, after a national security source told the Globe and Mail he had been assigned to target Conservative MP Michael Chong and Chong's family in China.
The government ordered CSIS to start sharing intelligence with parliamentarians threatened by foreign government following the story about Chong.
Johnston said he found evidence that Chinese officials contemplated taking unspecified action against Chong and sought to build a profile on him, but there's no evidence they threatened either Chong or his family.
Johnston also said there's evidence the Chinese government dislikes former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu, who has been a vocal critic of Beijing. While Johnston acknowledged misinformation on Chiu was spread, he said he didn't find evidence the Chinese government was the source.
"Chinese-Canadian MPs, including Mr. Chiu, were and remain of particular interest to the PRC," he said.
Read the full report:
(Text KB)CBC is not responsible for 3rd party content
Johnston responds to Conservative attacks
The Conservatives have been critical of Johnston's appointment as special rapporteur, pointing to his friendship with the Trudeau family and his former position as a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.
At the news conference, Johnston, who served as governor general from 2010 to 2017, defended his appointment. He said he went on five ski trips with the Trudeau family decades ago and that he sometimes drove the Trudeau children to their mother's home after the trips.
But Johnston said he's had no unofficial contact with Justin Trudeau since Trudeau became a member of Parliament in 2008.
"Those are the facts with the so-called friendship, and the skiing," Johnston said.
WATCH | Reporter questions David Johnston about the appearance of a conflict of interest
Johnston said he got involved with the Trudeau Foundation because the organization provides scholarships and Johnston has had a long career in higher education. He said the foundation invited him to become a member following his term as governor general, and that he attended four Trudeau Foundation meetings. He said he donated to the foundation a few times.
He said his impartiality and integrity have never been questioned over the course of his public service career. He said he finds the attacks "very troubling."
"This kind of baseless set of accusations diminishes trust in our public institutions, and deters people who are publicly-minded, who are quite prepared to take on public service responsibilities," he said.
"There's a chill on them and it's quite troubling."
The Trudeau Foundation has been under fire over a 2016 donation from two businessmen allegedly linked to the Chinese government. The non-profit's board of directors and CEO announced their resignations last month, citing "the political climate surrounding a donation received by the Foundation in 2016."
Poilievre continues attack on Johnston
Poilievre was the only party leader to refuse to meet with Johnston in the lead-up to the report.
Poilievre renewed his attacks on Johnston's impartiality Tuesday.
"[Trudeau's] ski buddy, cottage neighbour, family friend and member of the Beijing-financed Trudeau Foundation came out and did exactly what I predicted — helped Trudeau cover up the influence by Beijing in our democracy," Poilievre told a news conference Tuesday.
WATCH | Poilievre questions Johnston's impartiality following decision not to hold public inquiry
Poilievre called the report a "whitewash attempt" and said Johnston is in "a conflict of interest." He continued to call for a public inquiry into foreign interference
"That's what I will deliver when I am prime minister. There will be a full public inquiry into this mess," Poilievre said.
Poilievre said he would not participate in any of Johnston's public hearings and would not seek to join NSICOP in the wake of the report.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, whose party is in a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberal government, said he still wants a public inquiry and will raise the issue with Trudeau.
"I'll be sitting down with the prime minister, making it very clear that I disagree with the finding of Mr. Johnston, that a public inquiry is necessary," Singh told a news conference.
"And I'll make it clear to the prime minister that we're going to use all the tools we have at our disposal to push for one at the federal level."
But Singh would not commit to pulling his support from the Liberals, which could trigger an election.
"That's not a decision we're making today," Singh said.
Singh said any election held now would be "under the cloud of suspicion of foreign interference."
The Bloc Québécois also continued to insist on a public inquiry.
"Holding a public and independent inquiry into Chinese interference is even more essential today," Alain Therrien, the Bloc's critic for democratic institutions, said in a French statement.
"The special rapporteur jumps to conclusions that we cannot accept that Chinese interference would not have had an effect on the 2019 and 2021 elections, on the basis of information that he will keep secret, despite media revelations."