CSIS chief pushes back against PMO claim about mistake in intelligence report

Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault prepares to appear before the Special Committee on the Canada–People’s Republic of China Relationship, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday, April 29, 2024.  (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)
Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault prepares to appear before the Special Committee on the Canada–People’s Republic of China Relationship, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday, April 29, 2024. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)

The head of Canada's spy agency says he has a "different interpretation" of an alleged mistake in an intelligence briefing cited by the prime minister's chief of staff during testimony before the foreign interference inquiry.

Katie Telford, who has served as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff since 2015, told the inquiry in April that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service raised a red flag about a "threat linked to an MP" that "didn't seem right" to her.

"And to the credit of the officials involved, they went and they worked through the night and they came to us the next day and reversed their assessment because they had made a mistake in how they were looking at the information," she testified.

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Telford said the experience taught the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) not to have "first blush trust" in CSIS's information.

In a recent interview with CBC News, CSIS director David Vigneault pushed back carefully against Telford's version of events.

"I would have, maybe, a different interpretation of that specific event that was referred to in the testimony," he said.

Vigneault didn't elaborate but said there is a difference between getting something wrong and re-assessing an intelligence report.

"Intelligence is like building a puzzle. Sometimes you're at the beginning of the puzzle, you're not really sure what it's going to look like and that's how you present your intelligence," he said.

"Sometimes, when you have more pieces of the puzzle, you're able to be more definitive in your assessment."

Vigneault did say CSIS could do a better job of explaining that distinction to government officials.

"So when they read our intelligence, they will understand what we mean by that and the limit of what we're saying," he said.

"And I think some of that is indeed on us."

A government source speaking on background said they stand by Telford's testimony.

Vigneault says PM's comment 'nuanced'

Trudeau also questioned the reliability of CSIS intelligence when he testified before the inquiry.

He said he hasn't always trusted the intelligence CSIS shares with him — including a report suggesting China may have interfered in a Liberal nomination contest.

The foreign interference inquiry was triggered by a series of media reports, citing unnamed sources and leaked documents, and repeated calls from the opposition.

One of those media reports claimed that in 2019, security officials told senior officials in the PMO that then Liberal candidate Han Dong "was part of a Chinese foreign interference network" and that the party should "rescind Dong's candidacy."

The 2019 allegations involved international students being bused to the federal riding of Don Valley North, Dong's riding, to vote in the Liberal nomination contest.

"I didn't feel there was sufficient or sufficiently credible information that would justify this very significant step as to remove a candidate," Trudeau told the inquiry on April 10.

"My concern was more perhaps that the service didn't understand as deeply as political actors do the prevalence of bussing of different community groups in nomination campaigns."

WATCH | Breaking down Trudeau's testimony at foreign interference inquiry

In what was interpreted widely as a rebuttal of Trudeau's comments, Vigneault used the final moments of the inquiry to defend CSIS's work.

Vigneault said he has met with Trudeau in the weeks since that exchange and maintains he and the prime minister are on good terms.

"I listened carefully to what the prime minister said and I do believe that his words were nuanced. And I do believe it was appropriate to be nuanced, because this is a very complex situation," he said.

He said others in the intelligence community might not feel the same.

"Everybody's entitled to their opinion," he said.

CSIS head says Bill C-70 'will not be enough' 

The public inquiry's first report, released earlier this month, said attempts by other countries to meddle in Canada's past two elections left a "stain" on this country's electoral system but ultimately did not affect which political party formed government.

Soon after Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue's report was released, the federal government introduced a bill aimed at curbing foreign interference in Canadian politics.

Bill C-70 would introduce new foreign interference offences, change how CSIS applies for warrants, update the rules on who can view CSIS intelligence and launch a long-awaited foreign influence transparency registry.

Some of the changes mirror advice Vigneault has given for years about updating the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act.

"Since the CSIS Act passed in 1984, technology has changed completely — personal computers, personal phones, artificial intelligence, none of that existed," he said.

When asked if the length of time it took to introduce the bill made Canada's intelligence service less effective, Vigneault said CSIS's work has gotten harder in recent years.

"The ability we have at CSIS to acquire the information we need to produce the intelligence to be able to protect Canadians has been, of course, challenged," he said.

"This is why I believe that the specific changes in Bill 70 will have an impact, but I will need to be candid here and say that this will not be enough. Eventually, you will need to do more."

WATCH | Bill proposes foreign influence registry

The bill already has its critics.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association argues Bill C-70 requires significant changes to become Charter-compliant.

"Proposed amendments to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act would significantly broaden the ability of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to collect, analyze and disclose sensitive information to third parties," said Anaïs Bussières McNicoll, interim director of the CCLA's privacy, technology and surveillance program.

"This proposed expansion of the service's power must be subjected to stricter limits to protect privacy rights."

Vigneault said he believes there's a balance to be struck.

"I do not believe that we can have a a zero-sum equation where it's either national security or civil liberties. I do believe that Canadians are sophisticated, that we can have the right discussion and we can find the right way to equip the people who swear an oath to protect Canadians to have the right tools to do that," he said.

"At the same time, do it in a way that respects who we are as Canadians, respect for the Charter of Rights, respect for privacy rights."