Johnston set to appear before House committee to defend his report on foreign interference

David Johnston, independent special rapporteur on foreign interference, recommended against a public inquiry into foreign electoral interference. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick - image credit)
David Johnston, independent special rapporteur on foreign interference, recommended against a public inquiry into foreign electoral interference. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick - image credit)

David Johnston, the federal government's special rapporteur on foreign interference, is expected to appear before the House of Commons procedure and House affairs committee on June 6, says the committee's chair.

Opposition MPs on the committee wrote a letter earlier this week calling for a special meeting to request Johnston's presence. They want to question him about his decision to recommend that the government not call a public inquiry into foreign electoral interference.

But during the committee meeting on Thursday, Liberal MP and committee chair Bardish Chagger said Johnston had agreed already to appear in response to an earlier request from the committee. Chagger said Johnston is expected to testify on June 6.

Johnston — appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a special rapporteur on foreign interference in March in response to the furor over Chinese government interference — has spent the past two months reviewing documents and interviewing policymakers.

The former governor general released his first report on Tuesday. In releasing his report, Johnston said that a formal public inquiry would not serve to investigate allegations of foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections because much of the classified information he has reviewed would need to remain secret.

The Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and NDP have all been calling for a public inquiry, prompting those parties to request the special committee meeting during a week when MPs are meant to be spending time in their ridings.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Conservative MP Michael Barrett kicked off the meeting by putting forward a motion to summon Johnston to appear — similar to a court order. Barrett and his Conservative colleagues said they would accept a simple invitation after it was pointed out that Johnston had already agreed to appear.

But the meeting still saw some conflict. While Chagger said Johnston had offered to appear on June 6, Conservative MPs wanted to request that he appear sooner.

Conservative MP Luc Berthold argued that it was important for the committee to hear from Johnston before other witnesses scheduled for next week. He said they should use the information from Johnston's testimony to question others.

"Mr. Johnston should be the next, or nearly the next witness, if we want to do our work properly," Berthold said in French.

But Chagger said trying to get Johnston in next week likely would cause logistical complications and force other witnesses to reschedule.

"I'm just trying to add this up in my head as to how do I — as a chair of a committee that I think is very important, doing very important work — keep the train on the tracks," she said.

"I have done whatever I can to get us witnesses," Chagger continued. "These are people at the end of the day, they have schedules … and it's almost like we want them to have full-time seats at the procedure and House affairs committee."

The Liberal, Bloc and NDP MPs agreed to ask that Johnston appear as soon as possible but no later than June 6.

Speaking to reporters following the committee meeting, Barrett said it's important to hear from Johnston because there are still unanswered questions about foreign interference.

"[Johnston's report] was an incomplete picture at best of foreign interference. At worst, it's a whitewash," he said.

Singh adds conditions to accepting top secret clearance

Johnston's report recommended that opposition leaders be granted top secret clearances so they could also review the intelligence that informed Johnston's report. Trudeau said Tuesday he sent letters to all House of Commons party leaders offering them such clearance.

But Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet have refused the offer because they wouldn't be able to discuss the information publicly.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said earlier this week he would accept Trudeau's offer. But on Thursday, Singh sent a written reply to Trudeau — which the NDP provided to CBC — listing a number of conditions on Singh's acceptance.

Singh said he wants a briefing from security officials on what he would be allowed to say publicly about the intelligence he is shown. He also asked that he be allowed to speak as freely as possible about his own conclusions after reviewing the top-secret information.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

"In his report, Mr. Johnston wrote that he insisted on an 'unprecedented' ability to discuss intelligence matters. I expect that I would be able to speak as freely about my conclusions based on the intelligence I am allowed to view and that my ability to be critical of the government's actions will not be constrained," Singh wrote.

Singh also asked that members of his team be given the two spots that Poilievre and Blanchet declined.

While he didn't recommend a public inquiry, Johnston said in his report he did find "serious shortcomings in the way intelligence is communicated and processed from security agencies through to government."

Johnston said he'll continue his work as special rapporteur through to October by holding hearings to find ways to fix those shortcomings. He said he will produce a second report later this year.