Intelligence watchdog calls out panel for failing to sound alarm on election interference

One of the core policies the Liberals introduced to protect Canada’s elections has been criticized again for failing to alert Canadians to foreign interference it observed in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

In a recent report, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), one of Canada’s intelligence watchdog bodies, criticized the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol (CEIPP) Panel, calling it “not adequately designed.”

Launched ahead of the 2019 election, the panel was presented by the federal government at the time as a key tool to defend elections from the type of foreign interference seen in the 2016 U.S. election and the Brexit vote.

The panel, made up of five senior public servants, received intelligence briefings from the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) task force. The task force is composed of representatives of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the RCMP, Global Affairs Canada and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s cyberspy agency.

The panel was tasked with alerting the public if it felt foreign interference threatened the integrity of a federal election. The panel made no such announcements during the 2021 and 2019 election campaigns.

NSIRA was tasked last year with investigating how information about Chinese interference flowed between intelligence agencies and the federal government. It also looked at how the panel and task force functioned during the election. 

The review agency’s report, tabled late Monday in the House of Commons, pointed to “deficiencies” in the system. 

The report said SITE and the panel were set up mainly to respond to online disinformation campaigns, despite the Canadian intelligence community’s belief that “traditional” foreign interference was “the most significant threat to Canadian democratic processes and institutions.”

Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) David Vigneault adjusts a translation aid as he waits to appear before a parliamentary committee in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

A 2021 threat overview noted that foreign interference actors predominately used human-based tactics, “partly as a result of the way that Canada conducts its elections … but also due to the efficacy of HUMINT [human intelligence gathering]-based influence operations as compared to cyber activities given the structure of the Canadian electoral system.”

NSIRA also suggested the CEIPP panel and CSIS didn’t always see eye to eye. 

During a post-election panel debrief, one panel member said that the election had been “clean” despite “some stuff” occurring, according to the NSIRA report.

The report says that panel member stated that foreign interference in a specific riding was “not material to the election” and therefore not of direct concern to the panel.

The report says CSIS director David Vigneault asserted at the same meeting that the “strongest case” of Chinese foreign interference during the election came from the events in that riding.

NSIRA said Vigneault also lamented that “the machine” was not set up to address foreign interference outside of the election period.

NSIRA report flags issues with panel’s threshold 

The report doesn’t say which riding it’s referring to, but other public reports and testimony suggest it’s the British Columbia riding of Steveston–Richmond East.

The public inquiry investigating foreign interference said foreign meddling may have changed the result in that riding in 2021.

A preliminary inquiry report by commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue said there is a “reasonable possibility” that a foreign interference campaign deployed predominantly on WeChat and targeting Conservative candidate Kenny Chiu may have cost him the seat.

During the inquiry’s hearings, one of the panel’s members testified that the team considered warning the public in that riding but ultimately decided against it.

A man wearing a suit sits at a table speaking into a conference microphone
Kenny Chiu appears as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Allen Sutherland, who works in the Privy Council Office as an assistant secretary to the cabinet, told the inquiry that decision was made, in part, because a potential misinformation campaign was likely only to reach the Chinese diaspora.

He also told the inquiry the panel feared that intervening publicly too often would create an impression that Canada’s democratic institutions lacked integrity.

NSIRA’s report criticized the panel’s high threshold and said the panel’s lack of communication created issues. 

“If information about specific foreign interference attempts emerges following the election, no communication during the election may be interpreted as a lack of action, or lack of willingness to take action, on the part of the government,” it said.

“If no such information emerges, the lack of communication, and associated implication that the integrity of the election was not threatened by foreign interference, may give a false impression as to the level of foreign interference that occurred.”

The report recommends the government change how the panel responds to election threats, including at the riding level.

WATCH | CSIS and PM’s adviser clashed on foreign interference threat in 2021: report

CSIS and PM’s adviser clashed on foreign interference threat in 2021: report

CSIS and the prime minister’s national security adviser didn’t always see eye to eye on foreign interference in elections, according to a recent report from one of Canada’s intelligence watchdogs.

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc did not commit to changing the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol on Tuesday but said he’s reviewing the report’s recommendations.

“We’re certainly happy to look at the report obviously in detail and ensure that the recommendations are enacted,” he told reporters.

Conservatives call panel unhelpful and useless 

NSIRA’s report is not the first to urge the government to rethink how the panel works.

After the 2021 election, former civil servant Morris Rosenberg was tasked with writing an independent report reviewing the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol panel’s work.

That report, released last year, urged further study on whether to inform the public about threats that do not meet the panel’s high bar.

Some of the most pointed criticism of the panel’s work has come from the Conservative Party.

In its submission to Hogue’s inquiry, the party’s lawyers argued the panel was meant to be “a bulwark and ultimate backstop to deter and prevent foreign interference” but “in design and in practice, [it] did not play any real and useful role.

“In many instances, those who were the targets of the foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 general elections only received information about these efforts from Canada’s security and intelligence apparatus in 2022 or 2023 – a classic closing of the proverbial stall door well after the horse had already bolted,” said the party.

WATCH | Report finds ‘significant gaps’ in intelligence sharing between CSIS and PM’s adviser: 

Report finds ‘significant gaps’ in intelligence sharing between CSIS and PM’s adviser

Canada’s top spy agency and the prime minister’s national security adviser clashed on the threat of Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections, says a new report. The report by one of Canada’s intelligence watchdogs says the two did not always see eye to eye on how significant the threat was. Two former CSIS directors join Power & Politics to discuss the so-called ‘grey area’ in monitoring foreign interference.

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