CSIS must inform MPs about all threats against them, no matter how credible: Trudeau
OTTAWA — Canada's intelligence agencies must immediately inform MPs of any threats against them, regardless of whether those threats are considered credible, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday.
Trudeau told reporters that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service,the country's national spy agency, never shared information it received about threats against Conservative MP Michael Chong and his family members who live in Hong Kong.
"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," Trudeau said.
The prime minister said he only learned on Monday that CSIS had the intelligence two years ago, after an article to that effect was published in the Globe and Mail.
He said that around the same time, CSIS was asked to brief Chong after China publicly said it would sanction him for criticizing Beijing's treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China's Xinjiang province.
But the agency never told Chong about any threats it was hearing about.
After the story was first reported Monday, opposition MPs demanded that the Liberals explain what they knew about the threats made to Chong and when. It took the government two days to answer.
Public Safety Minister Mendicino said that as soon as the government learned of the allegations, he contacted Chong to discuss the situation and offer him a briefing with CSIS. That briefing took place Tuesday, and Trudeau attended part of it, he said.
Trudeau asserted Wednesday that when it comes to the safety and security of members of Parliament or their families, the intelligence agencies should always make that information known as soon as possible.
"We're making it very, very clear to CSIS and our intelligence officials that when there are concerns that talk specifically about any MP, particularly about their family, those need to be elevated," he said.
"Even if CSIS doesn't feel that it's a sufficient level of concern for them to take more direct action, we still need to know about it at the upper government level. We are making that direction now."
Chong said later he still has questions about what Trudeau, his office and his ministers knew about the matter.
"If ministers of the Crown and their offices were completely unaware of this, this shows an appalling breakdown (of) leadership on the part of the prime minister. The prime minister and the prime minister alone is responsible for the machinery of government," said Chong.
"For the prime minister not to know about this, not to be interested in this, I think … calls into question (his office's) handle on the machinery of government."
Chong said he has not spoken to his family in Hong Kong for years, and made a deliberate choice to sever contact with them out of an abundance of caution. He said he aimed to protect them amid China's incursions into Hong Kong.
"I don't know exactly what is going on," he said, his voice filling with emotion. "The position I find myself in is the same position that Canadians across the country had to face for years. And that's why this government's inaction on this file is so inexplicable and appalling."
Chong did not divulge the nature of the threats his relatives faced.
Liberal MP David McGuinty, who chairs the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliament, said the committee has recommended that MPs and senators be briefed about foreign interference when they first take their seats and every year after that.
Liberal MP John McKay added if CSIS or other agencies had evidence of a threat against him, "I'd like to know about it sooner rather than later."
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who spoke to reporters before Trudeau's admission, said he could not imagine the country's national security service having information about a threat to an MP or their family and deciding to keep quiet.
"I find it very hard to believe that CSIS would produce a document about a Canadian MP's family being threatened because of a vote on the floor of the House of Commons and that they wouldn't tell the prime minister or his top public safety minister," Poilievre said. "This is insane."
He said the only way to learn about CSIS's activities is through a public inquiry into foreign interference.
As Conservatives pressed the government for more answers on Wednesday, they pointed out the testimony of a national security official at a House of Commons committee in February.
Without describing any specifics, the CSIS official confirmed the agency had detected "hostile activities of states" against politicians and had briefed the government about that.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh echoed the Tories' call for a public inquiry. He also wrote to Trudeau to ask for more information on how the potential threats against MPs are handled.
Trudeau has deferred a decision about whether to hold such an inquiry to former governor general David Johnston, who was appointed as a special rapporteur to probe how Canada and its intelligence agencies have handled the problem.
Johnston has until the fall to complete his work, but has been asked to make a decision about whether an inquiry is needed by May 23.
The opposition parties also want Canada to expel a Chinese diplomat who Chong says CSIS identified as being part of the plot to intimidate him and his family. The man remains on Canada's list of approved diplomats as a Chinese consular official in Toronto.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said previously that Canada would expel Chinese diplomats if there is evidence they participated in interference activities, but such a move must be governed by a United Nations code on international diplomacy.
During question period Wednesday, Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, who serves as Joly's parliamentary secretary, would not say whether the government plans to expel the diplomat.
But the government will act in "due diligence, following the rule of law," he said.
"We will take our time and do it appropriately."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2023.
— With files from Mickey Djuric.
Mia Rabson and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press