Wesley Wark is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and writes on national security and intelligence issues for his Substack newsletter.
No public inquiry. That was the surprise conclusion reached by David Johnston, the independent special rapporteur on foreign interference appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in March. By all accounts he surprised himself. The decision has been met with predictable outrage by many, including opposition party leaders, who continue to insist on the need for a public inquiry. The demand may persist, possibly until the next federal election. The Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre, has pledged to hold a public inquiry into electoral interference if he forms the next government.
Mr. Johnston’s reasoning for not holding a public inquiry (essentially a judicial inquiry) is sound. There are secrets to protect. There is no smoking gun around claims of ministerial negligence or malfeasance in turning a blind eye to intelligence warnings for partisan political reasons. Finally, in his view, there is a better way.
That better way involves, according to Mr. Johnston’s first report, the holding of public hearings without the legal frameworks that surround a judicial process. No subpoenaing of witnesses, no battles over release of classified records, but in the end greater transparency and, importantly, a much faster process.
This is Mr. Johnston’s magic rabbit, pulled out of his hat. The special rapporteur is determined to devote the next stage of his work to these hearings and to base his final report, due at the end of October, on what he learns. The question is, will it work? The answer depends on the issues raised, the soundness of recommendations made, and the willingness of Canadians, and of political parties, to give it a chance. All the evidence so far suggests that opposition political leaders will be mighty unwilling to take part in the process – which would be a great shame. The Canadian public, I suspect, will be more open-minded, but will bring high expectations to the table.
The utility of public hearings also depends on the objective. Mr. Johnston, in his press conference on the release of his first report, cited the need for greater public understanding of the foreign interference threat and the importance of finding ways to improve the work of the Canadian national security and intelligence system. Both are real problems.
Mr. Johnston noted, with some surprise, that there was actually a lot of information in the public domain on foreign interference prior to the cascade of news stories starting in November of 2022, but not much attention was paid. Much of the public information was “high level” and generic. It wasn’t deemed newsworthy and readers would have had to bring a level of pre-existing knowledge (and lots of reading time) to multiple documents. Had the government actually followed the recommendation of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians in a 2019 study and developed an overarching public strategy on foreign interference – a one stop shop document – that might have helped. But it didn’t. Public hearings hold real promise of advancing what the CSIS director David Vigneault has referred to as the need for national security literacy in Canada.
There are deep legacy problems hindering effective intelligence reporting on foreign interference and other national security threats. Those problems partly have to do with dysfunctional governance of the intelligence system – the system is too siloed, there are too many streams of reporting, and not enough central coordination and control. The effective flow of intelligence is hindered and the attention paid to it by senior decision-makers is spotty. But there is a related problem, more diffuse, but also of long-standing. This is often referred to as the intelligence “culture” problem. In a nutshell, Canada is unique among its Five Eyes partners in not paying appropriate attention to the critical importance of intelligence for wise policy making.
Mr. Johnston has indicated a preliminary agenda for his public hearings. It’s wide-ranging and ambitious. Some of his agenda focuses on strengthening review bodies and enhancing their legitimacy, some on improving legislation, and there is lots on governance. There are interesting suggestions about a Cabinet committee on national security and the need for a system for declassifying documents in the public interest. But the agenda for the public hearings phase needs to be more ambitious still to get to the root causes of intelligence system deficiencies.
Mr. Johnston’s public hearings deserve a chance to succeed. Political parties have a constructive role to play in that regard. Rear-view mirror calls for a public inquiry need to be put aside.