Wednesday was a gruesome day for the Prime Minister. It began with a report by Global News citing two high-level memos to the Prime Minister’s Office warning, in highly specific terms, not just about foreign interference in our elections generally, but about infiltration and funding of Liberal campaigns by the government of China.
The first, a “Special Report” prepared by the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat within the Privy Council Office – which reports directly to the Prime Minister – warned that Chinese officials had passed money via intermediaries to a clandestine network of 11 candidates in the 2019 election.
The story had been reported before, but not with such detail or direct sourcing. “A large clandestine transfer of funds,” the January, 2022, memo read, “earmarked for the federal election from the PRC Consulate in Toronto was transferred to an elected provincial government official via a staff member of a 2019 federal candidate.”
The second was an unredacted version of a 2019 report by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), the same all-party committee the Prime Minister recently tasked with investigating matters arising from reports by Global News and The Globe and Mail.
The report says, inter alia, that “foreign states clandestinely direct contributions to and support for the campaigns and political parties of preferred candidates,” and that “targeting often begins during the nomination process.” According to Global News, it cites several examples of interference by China, in particular, noting that a Chinese embassy official founded “a group of community leaders called the ‘tea party’ to hand-pick candidates that it would support and ultimately publicly endorse.”
Neither of these reports can be dismissed as “raw” or single-sourced intelligence. As the name implies, the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat’s responsibility is not just to pass on intelligence, but to assess its significance. The memo in question was distilled, Global says, from scores of reports “gleaned from an ongoing, high-level probe in the Greater Toronto Area launched in January 2019.”
As for the NSICOP review, according to the committee chairman, Liberal MP David McGuinty, the committee “heard testimony from dozens of officials from the Canadian security and intelligence community, reviewed thousands of pages of documentation, both classified and open source, and deliberated at great length.” This can no longer be written off as something cooked up by a few rogue CSIS operatives, if it ever could be.
So: not a good way to start the day for the Prime Minister. It got worse. Pressed by reporters to say whether he had seen these reports, he stalled, talked over them and otherwise refused to answer.
Asked a series of simple factual questions by the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament – did intelligence officials, as previously reported, brief either himself, his aides or Liberal Party officials that a Liberal candidate was “part of a foreign interference network”; how much money did the government of China contribute to the Liberal Party or its “various arms,” and so on – he did much the same. It was difficult to watch.
Through it all he clung grimly to the process unveiled in his Monday press conference: a review by NSICOP, another by the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), all overseen by the hastily devised and hazily mandated office of “Independent Special Rapporteur.” As for himself, he told reporters, “I know that no matter what I say, Canadians continue to have questions about what we did and what we didn’t.”
Well, no. The statement implies a kind of petulance on the part of Canadians, as if it were no use answering anyone’s questions because they wouldn’t believe him. But how will he know unless he tries?
The elaborate, multilayered process Justin Trudeau has put in place is meant to suggest the whole thing is some sort of bottomless well, shrouded in mystery – something that will take, oh, at least until after the next election to piece together. But the Prime Minister could clear up the most important questions raised by this affair – what did he know, what did his aides know, and what did Liberal Party officials know about China’s efforts to throw the last two elections their way; when did they know it; and what did they do about it – in a single day. All he has to do is start answering them.
That, and stop obstructing such avenues of inquiry as do exist: the NSICOP, which reports to the Prime Minister and whose reports, as the committee itself has complained, he routinely ignores; or the Commons Procedure and House Affairs Committee, in whom the Prime Minister had earlier publicly placed such stock, where his minions have been energetically stonewalling all attempts either to obtain the relevant documents or to call the most pertinent witnesses, notably his chief of staff.
This is not the behaviour of a Prime Minister with nothing to hide. The explanations for his silence need not extend to treason. It is possible to imagine all sorts of reasons why a government might prefer not to expose unpleasant truths to the light; it is, after all, what they do on most occasions, and it would be easy to forget that the unpleasant truths in the present instance involve the efforts of a foreign dictatorship to subvert our democracy, allegedly with the help of certain members of the Liberal Party.
There is, let us remember, a context to recent events. That the Prime Minister, and the government he leads, have made great efforts over the years to get close to China, arguably at the expense of Canadian interests, is well documented: Whether this is because of the Trudeau family’s peculiar history of idealizing the Communist regime, or half-baked theories of China as the next global imperium, or the business ambitions of certain Liberal grandees, well represented in the Canada China Business Council, who can say. Overlap that with the complexities of diaspora politics, especially where the source country asserts the right and ability to extend its authority to members of the diaspora, and it is not hard to imagine someone forgetting where the lines are.
The Prime Minister’s silence may also be based on the calculation that, eventually, in the absence of fresh revelations, people will get bored and move on. This is a not entirely unreasonable supposition, in light of Canada’s vastly ineffective institutions of accountability, especially where the actions of a prime minister are involved, in as much as most if not all of them depend upon the Prime Minister’s active co-operation to make any headway at all. Hide, stall, say nothing and before long they run out of oxygen.
But it is also helped immeasurably by the endless incuriosity of much of this country’s chattering classes. It has been several weeks, after all, of almost constant leaks from somewhere within the intelligence establishment of the most damning kind, and still you see some people determined to wave it away as so much secondhand gossip. “Intelligence is not truth,” they remind us, sagely. A single piece of anonymously sourced information, taken out of context, can mean many different things.
All of which is very true. But that is not what we are presented with here, as anyone who has been paying attention should know. No one has suggested anyone should be arrested based on what we have heard, still less tried or convicted. All anyone has asked for is an explanation, or failing that, an investigation. It’s easy to understand why the government would be unwilling to produce either. But the willingness of others to cut them such infinite slack is harder to fathom.
One explanation, I think, lies in a misplaced reluctance to form a judgment, especially about the conduct of others – and most especially where this implies unsettling things about the state of our democracy. That native feeling, whether rooted in generosity of spirit or complacency, is reinforced by the many protections afforded the accused in our legal system.
But this is not a legal proceeding, but merely an attempt to figure out what is going on. As I have written before, the presumption of innocence does not oblige us to be deaf, blind and stupid. We should not condemn anyone based on leaked intelligence. But we are entitled to draw reasoned inferences, if only to say: This doesn’t smell right. We need to know more.
The other explanation lies in the desire to be thought worldly wise, clued-in, unfooled. No one wants to be taken in by false intelligence – we have been burned before – and some are very keen to let the world know they have not been. But there is a difference between acknowledging that a given piece of intelligence may be wrong and insisting that all of them must be. It is the difference between skepticism and denialism.
Demand further proof before forming any conclusions, by all means. But to refuse even to inquire into it, to dismiss the whole thing out of hand as a media creation, a “nothing burger,” a witch hunt, is a kind of reverse conspiracy theory. It requires the same mixture of denialism and credulity – disbelieving official sources and credible evidence, but believing everything else – that ordinary conspiracy theories do.
See, the thing about a witch hunt is, there are no such things as witches.