MP Michael Chong says CSIS report was sent to PM's adviser, contradicting Trudeau
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino had strong words for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Friday when he claimed the agency failed to brief the prime minister on a Chinese government plan to target Conservative MP Michael Chong's family.
His comments come at the end of a week that saw the government hounded over how it handled intelligence reports detailing a Chinese government plot to target MPs, reported by the Globe and Mail.
"What I would say is that it's a serious problem that in July 2021 that neither the prime minister or the public safety minister at the time were briefed directly by CSIS," Mendicino said Friday afternoon from the Liberal policy convention in Ottawa.
"But we're rectifying that."
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked repeatedly to explain why he told Canadians that information about the Chinese government plot to target MPs was never shared outside of CSIS — despite a report to the contrary.
But the prime minister refused to answer questions about the source of the communication disconnect in his government.
"I get briefings regularly from various sources. I'm not going to go into details on that," he said. "I shared the best information I had at the time both to [Conservative MP Michael] Chong and to Canadians."
WATCH | Reporters press PM for answers on Chong situation
Reporters press PM for answers on Chong situation
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he shared 'best information' he had with Canadians on Wednesday, when he said a report about China's intelligence service seeking to target MPs never left CSIS.
On Monday, the Globe and Mail published a story citing a top-secret 2021 CSIS document saying that China's intelligence agency was seeking information about an unnamed Canadian MP's relatives "who may be located in the PRC [People's Republic of China], for further potential sanctions."
A national security source reportedly told the Globe that the MP targeted was Chong and that Zhao Wei, a Chinese diplomat in Canada, was working on this matter.
On Wednesday, Trudeau said the matter wasn't shared outside of CSIS.
"We asked what happened to that information, was it ever briefed up out of CSIS? It was not," he said at the time.
"CSIS made the determination that it wasn't something that needed to be raised to a higher level because it wasn't a significant enough concern."
On Thursday, Chong told the House of Commons that the intelligence report on the matter was shared with relevant departments — including the prime minister's national security and intelligence adviser in the Privy Council Office. The Wellington-Halton Hills MP said the current national security adviser, Jody Thomas, told him so.
"This report contained information that I and other MPs were being targeted by the [People's Republic of China]," he said.
WATCH | Minister insists alleged threats against MPs were 'never shared with' him
Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair, who was the minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness in July of 2021, speaks with reporters about his knowledge of a Chinese government plot to target MPs. 'It would have been useful to have that information at the time,' he says.
On Friday, Trudeau insisted again that the CSIS information wasn't shared with the political level.
"They proceeded to go through their processes in the way that they felt was the right thing to do," he said.
"It's also clear that information never made it up to the political level in my office, to me, or even to the minister of Public Safety at the time."
That person, Bill Blair, said he was aware of concerns about potential interference but wasn't briefed on specific names.
"My hindsight is as clear as everybody else's. It would have been useful to have that information at the time but it was never shared with me," said Blair, who is now now Emergency Preparedness minister.
"They didn't tell me who they were briefing or when they were briefing or what it was about."
WATCH | Should Canada expel diplomats accused of interference?
Should Canada expel China's diplomat accused of targeting Michael Chong?
Conservative MP Michael Chong is demanding an explanation and action after reports that he and his family were targeted by China and one of its diplomats living in Toronto. Plus, how are the Liberals planning to re-energize the party?
Blair said questions about why he wasn't briefed should be directed at CSIS and the relevant department heads.
Trudeau said he directed the spy agency to share more information with the federal government about threats to members of Parliament in light of the Chong case.
A spokesperson for CSIS said Friday the agency is limited in what it can say, but added that intelligence assessments are shared with the government.
"Raw intelligence and intelligence assessments products are shared with the government of Canada to advise on threats to national security. CSIS will continue to lawfully inform the government of Canada, and Canadians, of potential threats," said Eric Balsam.
"CSIS has a culture of continual learning and improvement and this includes how intelligence is shared and used to inform decision-making."
Chong has said that prior to this week, CSIS had only given him a "defensive briefing" — a term the agency uses for an educational briefing — but it was general in nature and didn't contain information about Zhao.
Balsam said earlier this week that CSIS met with Chong "to discuss potential foreign interference threats posed to the MP and his family."
Ian Brodie, who served as chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper from 2006 to 2008, told CBC's Power & Politics that Trudeau's comments about CSIS not sharing information didn't make sense.
"It's natural for CSIS to share its reporting of this sort broadly across other security services and the cabinet office," he said.
"In my experience, anything that deals with an MP or anyone at the political level would be automatically shared with the Prime Minister's Office and brought to the prime minister's attention as quickly as possible."
Sen. Ian Shugart, who served as clerk of the Privy Council from April 2019 to March 2021, agreed that an assessment about an MP would have been raised politically.
"I think it's important that we understand that every case is different and there may be specifics about a case that justify it being dealt with in a different way," he told host David Cochrane.
"But as a general idea, particularly where a member of Parliament or a parliamentarian is involved, I would have thought that there would be a more rapid transfer of information."
When the CSIS report — dated July 20, 2021, according to the Globe — was being assembled, the national security and intelligence adviser's office was in flux.
Vincent Rigby retired and left the position at the end of June.
According to a PCO spokesperson, Dave Morrison, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, acted as the adviser until Thomas was appointed in early 2022. But during the window of July 16 to Aug. 3, 2021, Mike MacDonald was filling in.
"Mr. MacDonald does not recall having seen any material regarding threats to MPs during this time. As a result, no material describing any such threats was briefed to PMO," the PCO spokesperson said in an email.
Brodie, now a professor at the University of Calgary's department of political science, said any changeover at the top would not be expected to affect the work of the dozens of people who staff the office of the national security adviser.
"These are not issues where there's one person who has a bad day or is off at a doctor's appointment and the system falls apart," he said.
"I guess the question is then why was the government sending the message to its security agencies that it did not take the challenge of Chinese political interference in the Canadian political process seriously?"
Calls for Canada to expel diplomat
Chong has called for the government to expel Zhao and accused the government of sending the wrong signal to foreign adversaries by not acting more swiftly and decisively on foreign interference.
"We are basically putting up a giant billboard for all authoritarian states around the world that says we are open for foreign interference threat activities on Canadian soil targeting Canadian citizens, and you can conduct these activities with zero consequences," Chong said during a heated committee meeting Thursday.
WATCH | Trudeau says 'due consideration' necessary on decision to expel diplomat
Trudeau says ‘due consideration’ necessary on decision to expel diplomat
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with reporters about whether the government will expel a Chinese diplomat accused of interference.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said the government has summoned China's ambassador and is considering the ramifications of expelling a diplomat.
Shugart said expelling a diplomat is easier said than done. One factor the government must consider, he said, is what happens if Canadian diplomats are expelled in retaliation and Canada is left without eyes and ears on the ground.
"Those are the kinds of things that will go into that decision and they're made with a combination of the policy objectives and what is the the right thing to do in terms of, for example, the stand that this government has taken against hostage diplomacy As well as the real life implications for this country and its citizens of taking certain actions," he said.
Trudeau said Friday a decision will be made in "due course."
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