CSIS Director Dick Fadden is retreating from remarks he made on the CBC Tuesday night about Chinese spies infiltrating municipal and provincial politics in Canada.
"Recent comments I made in the context of a special report by the CBC on CSIS have given rise to some concerns about foreign interference in Canada. The following statement is meant to place those comments in context," he said in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon,
He adds that "I have not apprised the Privy Council Office of the cases I mentioned in the interview on CBC" and that "at this point, CSIS has not deemed the cases to be of sufficient concern to bring them to the attention of provincial authorities."
"There will be no further comments on these operational matters."
In his first broadcast interview Mr. Fadden, appointed to head the Canadian Security Intelligence Service last year, suggested that two provincial cabinet ministers and a number of other government officials and employees are under the control of foreign countries as part of espionage schemes.
"We're in fact a bit worried in a couple of provinces that we have an indication there are some political figures who have developed quite an attachment to foreign countries," he told CBC Tuesday night.
He had suggested China, whose President is currently visiting Canada, was involved in the foreign influence of Canadian officials.
Mr. Fadden had also suggested that he advised federal government "centre" - the Prime Minister's Office and Privy Council Office - about specific officials who had been compromised.
The Prime Minister's Office earlier denied it had received warnings from Mr. Fadden.
For years, CSIS officials have warned that foreign influence - particularly by China - is a chronic problem in Canada, though in far less specific terms that Mr. Fadden had done.
Before Mr. Fadden made his retraction on Wednesday, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty called on the top security watchdog to elaborate on his assertions.
"I think that in fairness what Canadians are owed right now is some more information," Mr. McGuinty told reporters early Wednesday. "If there are some real concerns, let's get more information so we can properly address them."
Mr. McGuinty said this was the first he had heard of the CSIS director's concerns. He also said he is confident that that none of the unnamed cabinet ministers reside within his government.
It is his understanding, he said, that CSIS was to contact federal government officials who, in turn, would notify the relevant provinces.
"We have not been contacted," Mr. McGuinty said. "So from our perspective, no news is good news."
In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday morning, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell called Mr. Fadden's comments "unprecedented and completely unprofessional," and challenged the CSIS head to release any evidence he has to back them up.
"I have complete confidence in municipal politicians across the province, that they are working on behalf of and for the people in their municipalities. I have confidence in my cabinet," Mr. Campbell told reporters.
"I would be surprised if every premier didn't say the same thing across the country so candidly, I think this really was not just unprecedented, it is incredibly unprofessional and I think that it calls into question how this organization is working."
Mr. Campbell said the first he heard of the CSIS concerns was Tuesday's interview, noting CSIS made no official attempt through proper channels to reach out to the B.C. government to express concerns about these issues.
"He's provided neither the head of our public service nor me nor our solicitor general nor our attorney general any evidence of this whatsoever," he said.
The premier seemed especially incredulous about suggestions that people could be targeted based on their ethnicity and influenced by foreign governments.
"This is a country that welcomes people from all over the world. This is a country that takes pride in our diversity and celebrates our multiculturalism, and I would expect that the head of an organization of this import would actually have substantiation to those sort of comments."
The acting head of the organization representing hundreds of B.C. municipalities also criticized CSIS for the assertions.
"We feel the accusations are unfair to 1600-plus men and women who have been elected to local office in British Columbia," said Barbara Steele, first vice president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities. "We're disappointed."
She said it's up to CSIS to respond to the tide of questions raised by their head's statements. "It's a little bit of a cloud around local elected officials," Ms. Steele said from Surrey.
With files from Karen Howlett and Ian Bailey