Pinpointing foreign meddling of all kinds can be a challenge, ex-spies tell inquiry

OTTAWA — Detecting foreign meddling can be a significant challenge, whether it's perpetrated by diplomats, through proxies acting on their behalf or anonymously via computer servers, former senior intelligence officials told a public inquiry Wednesday.

The officials were invited to provide advice to the federal commission of inquiry as it prepares for hearings, likely to take place in late March, on allegations of foreign interference in the last two general elections.

The inquiry will then turn to policy issues, examining the government's ability to detect, deter and counter foreign interference targeting Canada's democratic processes.

Dick Fadden, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said Wednesday it's challenging to figure out whether an interaction amounts to foreign interference.

In the case of terrorism, if someone is "futzing around with a bomb or something like that, it's pretty clear you need to pursue it," he said.

Foreign meddling can be much more nuanced, he suggested.

Some will say, "'Well, you know, it's obvious ... the consul general of country X was talking to somebody — it's foreign interference,'" Fadden said.

"Well, it ain't obvious. It's part of the job of diplomats. I was a diplomat briefly early in my career, and it was my job to go out and try and influence that country. So finding where it's situated on the spectrum is actually quite difficult to do."

Canada does not want to offend foreign governments unnecessarily, so there must be something to latch onto before CSIS or the RCMP can become actively involved, Fadden said.

Alan Jones, who was an assistant director at CSIS, said it gets even more complicated when countries use proxies and non-diplomatic actors to carry out foreign interference campaigns.

China has a multi-pronged approach to meddling, Jones said. It means not only diplomats engaging in such activities, but trade representatives, journalists, tourism groups and individuals also working on Beijing's behalf.

"The interference may actually happen in China itself, where they have coercive abilities because they can reach families or meet dual citizens who are travelling to China and back to see family or to do business," Jones said.

"At which point does it become foreign interference and meddling?"

Interfering with another country's election would clearly fall into that category, he said. "But the gradients between something that stark and benign or acceptable activities — there's a lot of activities in the middle."

It's very difficult to track and report on foreign interference campaigns waged online, said John Forster, former chief of the Communications Security Establishment, Canada's cyberspy agency.

Instigators can "send that stuff through umpteen number of servers around the world to cover its source, or the countries may use third parties to do it on their behalf," Forster said.

The spread of disinformation as part of foreign influence campaigns will become even more prevalent as artificial intelligence technology advances, he suggested.

Fadden, who led CSIS from 2009-13, said if he had found out that somebody was under threat from a foreign adversary, he would have "found a way to do something about it."

"I don't say that lightly. If it were a parliamentarian, I would have made sure my minister knows about it, and that the Privy Council knew about it."

The commission would be missing an important element if it did not develop an interest in the views of diaspora communities in Canada, Fadden said.

He suggested the commission have an active outreach program, possibly one that allows members of communities to make contact confidentially, since many are frightened to speak out.

In addition, many hail from parts of the world where dealing with the police or the security services is the last thing they want to do, Fadden said.

"And so the only time we find out about this is when something goes very wrong. So it's too late to do anything about it."

Given the trepidation, Fadden said he would also like to see the government create a means for diaspora community members to communicate with officials in confidence on an ongoing basis.

The inquiry's initial public hearings this week are also focusing on the thorny question of how to deal with the shroud of official secrecy around the controversial issue of foreign meddling.

The aim is to help identify ways to make information public, even though much of it comes from classified documents and sources.

The former intelligence officials said Wednesday there is room for Canada to be more transparent about national security issues.

Jones said although there are good reasons to protect security information, there are also ways to reveal more material while protecting sensitive sources. "We need to do better on disclosure than we have in the past."

The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia are much more open than Canada when it comes to security information, said Fadden, who suggested a tactic the commission might pursue.

"You can often point to something that they've released that's very close to what you want to release and ask the officials, 'Why can't we do this?'"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 31, 2024.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press