It’s often instructive for Canada to look south of the border for a clue or two on what we might or might not do. Now is a fine time to do so, because the United States has gone through a period of extended turmoil over foreign meddling and election interference – from the Russians, that is, not China.
China did have big plans to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election. Robert O’Brien, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, had warned before that vote that China was the biggest offshore threat – that it had “the most massive program” to influence the election.
But unlike in the case of the 2019 and 2021 Canadian elections, Beijing backed off. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded in a report that China, following warnings from Washington, feared reprisals. The potential risks outweighed the benefits. China instead focused on easier prey, such as Canada.
On foreign interference, the U.S. has undertaken two probes led by special counsels appointed by the attorney-general that Ottawa might learn a few things from. One was led by Robert Mueller, into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign; the other, coming on the heels of that inquiry, was led by John Durham, which essentially probed the first probe. It recently reported that the Mueller inquiry was triggered by biased FBI apparatchiks and the full investigation should never have been launched.
Mr. Mueller himself wasn’t the problem. Having served as FBI director under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he was deemed – unlike Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s appointment of family friend David Johnston to lead the China probe – to be objective.
The Mueller inquiry found that Vladimir Putin’s regime’s “illegal” activities were welcomed by the Trump campaign, but it exonerated the president from charges that he had colluded with the Russians. This was the big prize for the Republicans, who then vindictively went after the Democrats and the FBI via Durham.
But setting the tribal politics aside, the Mueller investigation was valuable. It brought to light the extent – greater than initially thought – of Russian attempts to subvert the democratic process.
Many Trump officials and Russians were charged as a result of the Mueller investigation. The Russians were unable to be extradited, as would likely be the case for any Chinese operatives charged in a Canadian probe.
Most importantly, Mr. Mueller’s work led to guardrails being put in place against electoral interference. Evidence of such intervention from Moscow has substantially abated since his 2019 report.
But the two probes, which went on for six years, opened a hornet’s nest. Their effect was to intensify partisan political warfare, expose the inner workings of FBI and intelligence agencies, and broaden the impression that the FBI has become politicized.
In Canada, a probe would undoubtedly bring on some of those stresses. It could open up sensitive areas involving intelligence and counter-intelligence activities. Maybe it’s about time they were opened up.
To also be considered is that for the superpower United States to stand up to another major power like Russia is one thing; for a smaller power such as Canada to probe the allegedly corrupt activities of a giant like China is another. What kind of repercussions might that have?
As in the U.S., political partisanship in this country is scaling unseemly heights over electoral interference issues. The leaders of the Conservative Party and the Bloc Québécois have said they are not prepared to examine the classified information on which some of Mr. Johnston’s preliminary findings are based. They say it’s a trap, that they won’t be able to reveal what they see at the in-camera sessions. But that’s disingenuous. They could view the material and state in general terms without detailing what the classified material amounts to.
In partisanship-gone-crazy America, one probe was concocted to take down another probe. But here we could have a similar scenario. Mr. Johnston is about to hold public hearings for his inquiry. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has promised that if he comes to power, he would launch a full-scale inquiry.
So get ready for havoc – but hopefully not six years of it.