Intelligence watchdog says Canada’s election interference safeguards are inadequate
Intelligence watchdog says Canada’s election interference safeguards are inadequate

The federal government needs to step up its game when it comes to warding off attempts to interfere in Canada’s democracy.

Canada’s National Security and Intelligence Review Agency has concluded that the country’s intelligence response was deeply flawed, particularly when handling foreign interference during the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

Following the 2016 presidential election in the United States, which the report said saw “well-documented Russian foreign interference,” the Government of Canada implemented several measures to protect the integrity of federal elections, three of which were examined in the report.

The measures highlighted were the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol Panel, the Security and Intelligence Threats to Election Task Force, and the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism.

The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency report is a comprehensive review of foreign interference occurring in Canada. Though the report began on Mar. 9, 2023, it was only made public after it was tabled in parliament on Monday. 

The report includes ten findings and eight recommendations focused on the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s intelligence collection and dissemination practices. It also evaluated the overall flow of intelligence regarding political interference by the People’s Republic of China between 2018 and 2023, identifying disagreements and flaws within the intelligence community.

The report exposed significant shortcomings in the CEIPP Panel’s handling of foreign interference during the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

The review examined the roles of the SITE Task Force and the CEIPP Panel. NSIRA’s review highlighted significant disagreements between constituents in the intelligence community regarding whether, when, and how to share information about political foreign interference.

“NSIRA found that the SITE Task Force and the CEIPP Panel were not adequately designed to address traditional human-based foreign interference,” reads the report.

SITE, for example, focuses on threats during elections, but NSIRA said that interference also occurs between elections.

The CEIPP Panel’s high threshold suggests that public announcements are unlikely to be triggered by traditional foreign interference, which targets specific ridings.

The threshold for public announcements meant it did not inform Canadians about foreign interference observed in the 2019 and 2021 elections.

“The security and intelligence community is of the consensus view that political foreign interference is a significant threat to Canada, and that the People’s Republic of China is a major perpetrator of this threat at all levels of government,” reads the report.

The report showed that CSIS faced a dilemma, where the agency collected information but feared sharing it because doing so could have been interpreted as election interference in itself.

NSIRA found that CSIS’ dissemination of intelligence during the 2019 and 2021 elections was inconsistent, often impacted by concerns over influencing the democratic process.

NSIRA recommended that CSIS develop a comprehensive policy, in consultation with government stakeholders, to bring coherence to its actions against political foreign interference. The agency also recommended enhancing intelligence literacy within departments.

The report found significant gaps in accountability within CSIS and Public Safety, noting the absence of a system to track who received and read intelligence products. NSIRA recommended that both agencies rigorously track and document this information. 

Moreover, NSIRA discovered that intelligence recipients often did not understand the significance of the intelligence they received or how to integrate it into their decision-making processes. Disagreements between intelligence units and senior public servants about what constituted foreign interference versus legitimate diplomatic activity further complicated the issue.

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc has indicated the government is reviewing NSIRA’s recommendations but has not committed to specific changes. 

“We’re certainly happy to look at the report obviously in detail and ensure that the recommendations are enacted,” said Leblanc.NSIRA’s report follows a previous report following the 2021 election. The report analyzed the 2021 CEIPP Panel’s implementation and effectiveness following the 2021 federal election. It made sixteen recommendations of its own, revealing deep flaws within the panel.

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