Beware CSIS ‘whistleblowers’ bearing scoops

For me, the most intriguing aspect of the current federal foofaraw over allegations that the Chinese government has been attempting to meddle in… well, everything everywhere is not that they are.

That’s what superpowers do with their super powers.

Evidence? How about the last 150 years of US mucking about in the internal affairs of most Latin American countries? Dark money, rigged elections, coups, putsches, assassinations, military interventions… They wrote the book.

The Russians are busy rewriting it in Ukraine.

The Chinese want to add their own chapters anywhere and everywhere.

While we in Canada tend to be more “meddlee” than meddler — “soft power” should never be confused with super power — we occasionally manage to muck about where we don’t belong too.

Remember Juan Guaidó, the obscure Venezuelan politician who was magically “elected” interim president of his country by 12 non-Venezuelan officials from the so-called Lima Group of countries. They didn’t like the outcome of an admittedly controversial 2018 Venezuelan election, so they decided to change it. Our own then-foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, stood at the tip of the Lima vanguard insisting its endorsement of Guaidó meant that the actual electoral victor, Nicolás Maduro, “loses any remaining appearance of legitimacy.”

Uh… Maduro is still president, Guaidó is a never-was footnote, now recognized by few outside his own family. But that’s another story.

And then there is all that hot air about the balloons. After a Chinese weather — or spy — balloon drifted off — or on — course across the United States last month, US Air Force F-16 jets blew it out of the sky employing the super firepower of its $440,000 AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles to great publicity.

In the hysteria that followed, the U. S. air force shot down three more unidentified balloons — apparently all harmless, including “an amateur balloon belonging to a hobbyist group called the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade [that] went missing in the same place at the same time as one of these air force bombings.” The cost: about $2 million to take down a few balloons valued at between $12 and $180 each.

Those shootdowns — justified or un- — touched off a wave of equally hysterical US political and media chest-beating and tub-thumping designed to make whatever actually happened seem more sinister than it was, thereby justifying greater bellicosity and, of course, even greater profits for US defence contractors.

Reality: the skies are filled with planes, satellites, drones, gadgets, gizmos and, yes, balloons from plenty of countries spying on plenty of other countries. We usually only hear about them when something goes wrong.

The Chinese “weather” balloon explanation even has its own excellent historical excuse pedigree. When the Soviets shot down American Gary Power’s U-2 military spy plane over its territory in 1960, US authorities initially claimed the plane was just a civilian weather research aircraft operated by NASA.

There have been more recent cases too involving the US and China. In 2001, a U.S. spy — “reconnaissance” — plane and a Chinese jet collided in the waters off the South China Sea, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the American plane to make an emergency landing. That touched off an international incident when the Chinese captured the plane’s wreckage, “which carried a trove of surveillance equipment and classified signals intelligence data.”

In 2017, the Chinese seized an underwater drone — which the US called a “research vessel, not a spy craft” — in the same South China Sea.

And so it goes.

All of which leads us back — circuitously, I’ll admit — to Ottawa and the allegations of Chinese interference in our most recent elections.

For me, the most interesting thing about the controversy is the role played by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service — and/or its “whistleblowers” — in promoting those allegations into the stuff of national scandal.

Don’t get me wrong. We need to investigate — in as public a way as possible — what the Chinese did (they did) and how, the role, if any, Canadians played in helping them do it, and whether the prime minister ignored warnings of this interference for his own political benefit, and what we can do to make it more difficult for any outsider to influence elections in the future, and, and …

But we need to be cautious too.

Our intelligence services, who jealously guard their right to do whatever they do in secret, are not without their own agendas.

Another historical pedigree: the RCMP’s Security Service — CSIS’s predecessor — employed its own bags of dirty tricks in the 1970s and ’80s, including break-ins, theft of a Parti Québécois membership list, barn-burning and surveillance of many non-violent left-wing groups to undermine Canadian democracy in the name of Canadian democracy.

CSIS was created, in fact, to end such Mountie excesses. But, as the Canadian Press’s Jim Bronskill noted in a February story documenting still more dirty tricks against 1960s Black activist Rosie Douglas revealed in recently released records of the Mounties’ Security Services:

Eight years ago, CSIS received authority to go beyond traditional intelligence gathering and engage in threat reduction measures against targets — legalization of the kind of “dirty tricks” that got the RCMP in trouble.

Even before that, of course, CSIS had been complicit in the rendition of a Canadian engineer named Maher Arar to Syria where he could be tortured.  And CSIS — along with the RCMP — “not only knew three [other] Canadians were being tortured in Syrian jails in a post-Sept. 11 crackdown, but co-operated with Syrian officials in their interrogations.”

Which brings us to these most recent stories of Chinese attempts to interfere in Canada’s federal elections in 2019 and 2021.

We know much of what we think we know about what happened from a series of scoops in the Globe and Mail and Global News. Without taking anything away from the reporters who broke the stories — scoops don’t just happen — we also need to ask ourselves who leaked those “secret and top-secret Canadian Security Intelligence Service documents viewed by The Globe and Mail,” on whose authority and for what reason.

On Thursday, CSIS Director David Vigneault testified before a House of Commons committee about the Chinese interference and was asked about the leaks:

The head of Canada’s spy service says an investigation is under way to find those who leaked highly classified information on Chinese election interference, and suggested the whistleblowers may have been frustrated by the federal government’s handling of Beijing’s intrusion into the democratic process. (Emphasis mine)

… Vigneault… declined to answer questions about whether the government ignored warnings of China’s influence operations in the 2019 and 2021 elections.

Mr. Vigneault faced queries about the leaks and whether there are any tensions between CSIS and the Liberal government.

“There is an investigation under way by CSIS and our partners regarding the sources of the information, the leaks,” he told MPs. Noting that Canada is a democracy, the director added: “There are ways for people to express their dissatisfaction.”

My own rough translation. We will never know who leaked the documents or why, and whether it was sanctioned at CSIS senior levels, but we can guess.

So, yes, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should stop stonewalling and announce a public inquiry into the actual allegations, his government’s handling of them and the leaks about them. The inquiry should be as public as possible — certainly more public than CSIS would like — and the ultimate focus should be on how we can alert Canadians to such efforts in as timely and transparent a way as possible without compromising sources. Again, far more transparent than CSIS would prefer.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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