Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

David Johnston, Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference, presents his first report in Ottawa on May 23.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

I asked the Prime Minister and Ministers if they were aware of any orchestrated effort to elect a LPC minority. They were not.”

Give David Johnston credit for one thing. It takes no small amount of courage, when your impartiality has been called into question and when the whole world is expecting you to call for a public inquiry into Chinese interference in Canadian elections – if only to demonstrate your impartiality – to then reject a public inquiry.

To be clear: that Mr. Johnston rejected an inquiry is not, in itself, proof he is in the tank for the government. Neither are his supporting conclusions: that, while Chinese interference in Canadian elections is a serious and growing danger, none of the specific allegations of Chinese interference to emerge from intelligence sources are anything to worry about; that, while the process by which intelligence findings are dispersed through the government is a chaotic mess, there was no deliberate effort on the part of the government to ignore or suppress them; or that a public inquiry could only duplicate the result of his private inquiries – without even being appreciably more public.

These are conclusions that it would be possible for a person of goodwill to draw. They may even be right. But they are not necessarily right, and the arguments he presents in their favour are alarmingly thin.

In essence, they boil down to: trust me. If you could see the top-secret classified intelligence I have seen – you can’t, mind you, but if you could – you would see that there is no story here, and no significant failing on the government’s part. Take my word for it, then, as I have taken theirs: wholly uncritically.

I see no reason to doubt his word. I see abundant reasons to doubt his judgment, starting with his insistence that people should not doubt his word: that it is not up to him, as an appointee to an office of public trust, to avoid doing things that might give the public reason to doubt his impartiality – such as accepting a commission from his lifelong friend and benefactor to investigate his lifelong friend and benefactor – but that it is up to the public not to darken their thoughts with such doubts.

But never mind. Suppose Solomon himself had written this report. Would a reasonable person find it persuasive? The remarkable thing about Mr. Johnston’s efforts to dismiss the intelligence reports that were the cause of his commission is how often they confirm them in their essentials. China did have a plan to funnel cash to 11 candidates – there’s just no evidence they received it. Liberal MP Han Dong was the beneficiary of Beijing’s help in securing his nomination – but he didn’t know about it. He and Liberal kingpin Michael Chan are close with Chinese consular officials – but hey, they admit it!

Erin O’Toole: I met with David Johnston for his report – here’s what happened

Andrew Coyne: China’s unrelenting influence campaign, the Liberals’ mishandling and the questions that remain

As for whether ministers saw the intelligence reports and failed to act on them, or as they insist, never saw them, here again Mr. Johnston is ever ready to give the government the benefit of the doubt. Reports, he writes, “are often addressed to departments, not individuals … The materials are disseminated, but no one keeps track of who specifically received or read them.” So how does he know who didn’t? “After conducting numerous interviews, the picture remains cloudy.” Oh well.

At times Mr. Johnston’s report reads like a government press release. There is the familiar lecture against drawing conclusions from a single intelligence report. Each one, Mr. Johnston writes, lyrically, is but “a brushstroke in a broader picture. Many brushstrokes must be put on the canvas together before the picture emerges.” Agreed: but there have been many brushstrokes. Should we ignore all of them?

Indeed, for all his efforts to put things “in context,” the rapporteur is strangely selective about which things and what context. For example, he mentions the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) as one of many actions the government has been taking against foreign interference. He does not mention the committee’s documented frustration at the Prime Minister’s refusal to act on any of its recommendations.

The willingness to excuse the government at every turn stands in contrast to his treatment of what he evidently views as the real villains of the piece: the media (“misconstrued”), the opposition (“excessively partisan”) and, especially, the intelligence sources who, risking prison, leaked the information to the media (“Malice cannot be ruled out.”).

Still, it’s not Mr. Johnston’s conclusions I take issue with – if I could only see what he’s seen etc. – so much as the process. A report that asks to be taken on faith, from an evidently conflicted rapporteur, is not likely to engender a great deal of trust. A public inquiry might, but Mr. Johnston waves it away. They’re costly, and take time, he complains, what with the calling of witnesses, and cross-examination, and all that.

Well, yes. That way, you see, the Prime Minister’s statements about what he knew or didn’t know can be tested against the testimony of others – instead of being taken in private by his father confessor. Would a public inquiry, as he claims, have to be held entirely in private? We have only his assurance of that, and much evidence to the contrary. Part of the business of public inquiries is to decide what can be made public, and what cannot. That’s contestable, and often contested. As, say, independent special rapporteurs are not.

To be fair, Mr. Johnston does invite scrutiny of his recommendations, and the classified intelligence behind them, by those with the proper security clearance: NSICOP, for example, or the opposition leaders, if they are prepared to be sworn to secrecy. Perfect. Suppose someone finds fault with his conclusions. How are they to make their case, being bound by oath? To whom? With what evidence?

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe