Politics

Trudeau to waive cabinet confidence to let agencies review foreign interference documents

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has agreed to waive cabinet confidence so that two federal agencies can read the same confidential documents David Johnston, the government's special rapporteur on foreign interference, reviewed as he produced his report on foreign interference.

NSIRA and NSICOP do not have an automatic right to review cabinet documents

justin trudeau surrounded by reporters
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will waive cabinet confidence to permit two national security review agencies to examine the documents that David Johnston saw. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has agreed to waive cabinet confidence so that two federal agencies can read the confidential documents David Johnston, the government's special rapporteur on foreign interference, reviewed as he produced his report on foreign interference.

Up to now, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) have not been allowed to review cabinet documents.

The two agencies have been tasked with reviewing what the Liberal government and national security agencies knew about allegations of foreign interference in the last two Canadian elections, and when they knew it.

The Prime Minister's Office told CBC News on Thursday that Trudeau would waive cabinet confidence "as soon as possible."

The move is in response to Johnston's recommendation that the government release every confidential document he saw to the review bodies so that they can examine his findings. Johnston has advised the Trudeau government not to order a public inquiry into foreign interference by the Chinese government.

Both of the national security review agencies normally face a wall of cabinet secrecy because they don't have an automatic right to review cabinet records. The government has been criticized for withholding such records. 

Johnston wrote in his report on foreign interference on Tuesday that the government should make an exception to that rule.

"Cabinet confidential documents ... were instructive, and in my opinion reflect careful consideration of difficult issues by the federal cabinet," Johnston wrote in his report.

The confidentiality of cabinet proceedings is a long-standing constitutional convention and the cornerstone of the Westminster style of government. It's meant to allow cabinet ministers to have robust discussions in secret.

The federal government appointed Johnston in March as a special rapporteur on foreign interference in response to a series of intelligence leaks reported in media outlets about Chinese government interference in the past two federal elections.

Although calls for a public inquiry have been coming from all sides, Johnston said such an inquiry would be ineffective because of the sensitive and classified nature of the information he reviewed.

This profile photo show former Governor General David Johnston sitting in a chair speaking to reporters.
David Johnston, independent special rapporteur on foreign interference, presents his first report in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Instead, Johnston recommended that NSICOP — made up of MPs of all political stripes with special security clearances — should review his report.

He also said NSICOP should work with the NSIRA — the watchdog set up to monitor the activities of Canada's national security and intelligence agencies — to "comprehensively" assess his report's findings and "identify any different conclusions than mine." 

Johnston said his confidential annex includes "additional details for those with relevant clearances," including records covered by cabinet confidence.

"NSIRA and NSICOP would benefit from reviewing them to ensure these review bodies have access to the same information I gathered and reviewed," Johnston wrote in his report.

The Privy Council Office normally safeguards records that contain cabinet confidences. Members of NSICOP voiced their frustration over cabinet secrecy in a letter last fall to the prime minister, saying the refusal to share some records posed "a growing risk to [NSICOP's] ability to fulfil its mandate."

The letter also warned that the committee doesn't know how many records covered by cabinet confidence actually exist and what is being withheld. NSICOP also alleged that federal officials made "broad claims" that documents contained cabinet secrets.

In 2022, the Liberal government agreed to provide cabinet secrets to a public inquiry studying the controversial decision to invoke the Emergencies Act during the anti-COVID-19 mandate protests and subsequent occupation of Ottawa.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She was recognized with the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct involving senior leaders in the Canadian military. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca

With files from Murray Brewster and Catharine Tunney