Politics

Security briefings for political parties not meant to reveal specific intelligence, inquiry hears

Members of a government task force monitoring foreign interference in the 2021 federal election say their briefings to political parties were never supposed to reveal specific or actionable intelligence, the Foreign Interference Commission heard Friday.

Political party officials criticized task force's briefings in testimony earlier this week

Commissioner Justice Marie-Josee Hogue listens during the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 2, 2024.
Commissioner Justice Marie-Josee Hogue listens during the federal inquiry into foreign interference on April 2. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Members of a government task force monitoring foreign interference in the 2021 federal election say their briefings to political parties were never supposed to reveal specific or actionable intelligence, the Foreign Interference Commission inquiry heard Friday.

Lyall King represents the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada's cybersecurity agency, on the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force. He spoke days after political party officials described the SITE briefings they received during the 2021 election as generic and unhelpful.

"The desired outcome was to really educate the baseline, to provide a little bit more information than what might be found in open sources," King said Friday. "What we shared was at the secret level, so not classified. 

"It was really intended to inform political parties … about the tactics and the techniques used by foreign adversaries in the course of engaging in foreign interference activities."

King said the briefings for party representatives were meant to open a communication pathway so that parties detecting evidence of foreign interference could flag it to security officials.

The SITE Task Force is made up of representatives of CSIS, the RCMP, CSE and Global Affairs Canada. Its job is to help protect Canadian federal elections by reviewing and collecting intelligence and providing assessments to government officials. During the 2021 election, it regularly briefed party officials on possible foreign interference threats.

Earlier this week, three of those party officials — Walied Soliman, Conservative campaign co-chair for the 2021 election; Azam Ishmael, who led the Liberals' 2021 campaign; and NDP national director Anne McGrath — told the commission the 2021 election briefings they received were not helpful.

'This was a new thing for us'

"My overall sense was that I really didn't learn anything in the briefings that I didn't regularly read in the New York Times or the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star," Soliman said Tuesday.

"Listening to briefings on things that I think … were probably not actionable and … entirely known to us was not a good use of time and probably not a good use of resources."

McGrath said she was struck by how many high-level security officials attended her briefing only to deliver generic information.

"Questions were asked," she said. "But the answers … didn't give you any information that would be helpful or any resources that would be helpful to deal with questions. Such as, if there was foreign interference in this aspect of the election campaign, how would we know it? And what would we do about it?"

A man and a woman sit at a table and speak into microphones
Azam Ishmael, left, and Anne McGrath appear as witnesses at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

King told the commission it was "never intended" that SITE would provide parties with specific intelligence information.

"I can understand certainly to an extent where some of that sentiment comes from," King said. "This was a new thing for us, to be quite frank, for SITE to be briefing political parties.

"Some of our intelligence does come from highly classified sources. To be able to downgrade it, to be able to share, we naturally have to obfuscate certain information, remove certain specificities, so it can become generalized in that sense."

Federal inquiry continues

The Foreign Interference Commission inquiry, led by Quebec judge Marie-Josee Hogue, expects to hear testimony from more than 40 people, including community members, political party representatives and federal election officials.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, members of his cabinet and various senior government officials are slated to appear at the hearings, which are set to conclude April 10.

An initial report of findings from the commission is due May 3.

The inquiry will then shift to broader policy issues, looking at the government's ability to detect, deter and counter foreign interference. A final report is expected by the end of the year.

WATCH | Former CSIS director on public hearings on election interference: 

Former CSIS director: 'I'm not sure we're any further ahead' after another week of public hearings on election interference

2 months ago
Duration 9:49
We learned this week from top intelligence officials that India and Pakistan attempted to interfere in Canada's last two elections. We ask former CSIS director Ward Elcock what he sees as the important revelations from the foreign interference inquiry so far.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Zimonjic

Senior writer

Peter Zimonjic is a senior writer for CBC News. He has worked as a reporter and columnist in London, England, for the Daily Mail, Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph and in Canada for Sun Media and the Ottawa Citizen. He is the author of Into The Darkness: An Account of 7/7, published by Random House.

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