Canadian agency takes heat from Senate over election-interference claims

The director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service says intelligence-gathering efforts were “entirely appropriate” and was unable to address allegations that the federal law-enforcement agency used political cronyism to stymie foreign efforts to influence the upcoming election.

“CSIS is absolutely serious about protecting the democratic institutions of Canada and our government, and ensuring that foreign influence in our politics does not affect the conduct of our elections,” Chief Commissioner Jean-Paul Labrie said in testimony to the Senate National Security and Defence Committee. “These concerns were important in assessing potential interference attempts in 2019 … we have to assume we are vulnerable to such attempts given the nature of our electoral system and our political discourse.”

But in pushing for more powers to stymie any attempts to manipulate the election, Mr. Labrie conceded that the agency did not have the mandate to stop anyone from accessing data gathered by technology companies or preying on the personal information of Canadian citizens.

“Our mandate isn’t to get involved in any investigation that involves the use of information, in any way, but to look at potentially foreign interference and/or foreign intervention in our democratic system,” he said.

“Our role is, in a general sense, surveillance and intelligence-gathering,” he added. “I can’t answer specifically, for example, about the use of our technical tools to explore the information, or whether we conducted a forensic investigation. That, I’m sure, is being answered to on a daily basis by all of our partners.”

Mr. Labrie said CSIS rarely used those tools for security purposes, and he described the agency’s use of such tools as “very infrequent.”

Parliament’s national security committee was deeply skeptical about Mr. Labrie’s assertion that surveillance was not a tool that the agency had in its toolbox. Conservative senators pressed him on what level of involvement the country’s spy agency had in cases where privacy laws were broken. The committee believes CSIS should share that information with the oversight panel of the prime minister, but the agency has for years refused to share that information on the grounds that it poses a security risk.

“I’m not claiming that our intentions were untoward,” said Mr. Labrie. “I wouldn’t think of it as going and recruiting girls on behalf of the agency or engaging in any criminality.”

Mr. Labrie was also criticized for examining portions of external reports on an agency that never actually received the reports, including a report claiming interference attempts in Canada’s election were set to start immediately if the Liberal government did not unveil a vision for the Canadian economy shortly after the 2019 election. The committee concluded that the foreign report outlining the foreign efforts was politically motivated.

“It was a toxic mixture of Russia, Chinese and anti-Trump groups, it was aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the people who elected a president that did not agree with a lot of their views or values,” said Conservative Sen. Larry Smith. “Was it ready?”

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