Releasing classified information on the firing of two scientists from Canada’s top-security infectious-diseases laboratory could reveal intelligence-gathering tradecraft, says the former civil servant who oversaw the file.
Vincent Rigby, who retired in September as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser, said parliamentarians should be able to read secret documents that shed light on the 2021 dismissal of Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.
But Mr. Rigby told The Globe and Mail on Friday that the Liberal government is not misleading Canadians when it says a way must be found for MPs to see the documents unredacted, but to keep some security and intelligence details from the public.
“These documents are indeed highly sensitive, and in places they are highly classified,” he said. “The release of these documents in an unredacted form would undermine unequivocally our national security.”
Mr. Rigby, who is now a senior fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, said the documents contain highly sensitive details about the techniques Canadian intelligence agencies used to investigate the two scientists’ interactions with China.
When Mr. Rigby served in the Prime Minister’s Office, he handled all matters of national security.
“There is stuff in there that you do not want to get out in public, including substantively what these people may or may not have been up to. I can’t say more than that,” he said. “It would provide potential adversaries with information they would love to get their hands on and it would potentially undermine our reputation with our allies – who expect us to closely guard information that we all share amongst each other.”
The dispute over the documents led to a showdown last June in which opposition parties cited parliamentary privilege to order the government to release records on the matter.
The government went to court to try to stop it, but abandoned the effort when the election was called.
In December, the government offered to turn over all the documents to a special committee of MPs from the Liberal, Conservative, Bloc Québécois and New Democratic parties. Three former senior judges would settle any dispute about whether to make the records public.
Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole has rejected the proposal, saying he wants the Liberals to stick with a plan the Tories floated last June to have the House of Commons law clerk vet documents to be provided to MPs. Mr. O’Toole proposed that David Vigneault, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and Mr. Trudeau’s current national security adviser weigh in on what should be redacted.
Mr. Rigby said the Liberal proposal is the better option, but regardless of the method chosen, MPs need guidance from national security experts.
“You need trained professionals who can take a look at these documents and understand the nuances of national security information and who can decide what can go out without causing any harm to national security,” he said.
The material contains hundreds of pages of internal records, including some related to the March, 2019, transfer of deadly virus samples to the Wuhan Institute of Virology that Dr. Qiu oversaw.
The Globe has reported that the RCMP are investigating whether the two scientists gave Canadian intellectual property to China, including to the Wuhan Institute. The Globe has also reported that Dr. Qiu, who headed the vaccine development and anti-viral therapies section at the Winnipeg lab, collaborated on scientific papers with Chinese military researchers, including a major-general in China’s People’s Liberation Army.
Mr. Rigby said he is still subject to secrecy laws and is prevented from discussing details of the case against the two scientists, who lost their security clearances in July, 2019, amid the RCMP investigation. They were dismissed in January, 2021.
The opposition parties have said they suspect the government is hiding behind national security to avoid revealing politically embarrassing information. They noted the government initially claimed the documents could not be released for privacy reasons, and cited violations of administrative security protocols as the reason for the dismissal of the scientists.
In June, as the Commons was about to pass the motion to demand the unredacted documents, the government raised national security and warned their release could damage international relations.
Mr. Rigby said the government was acting on new details gathered by Canadian security agencies into the activities of the two scientists.
“And so that is really why I think the government went from, ‘Okay, nothing to see here,’ to ‘Actually, there is something to see here,’ as more information came available,” he said.
Mr. Rigby also defended the work of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), an entity that is not a committee of Parliament and reports to the Prime Minister’s Office.
The government had first proposed that the committee look at the secret documents, but the opposition parties refused, citing concerns Mr. Trudeau could censor its report.
Unlike the NDP and Bloc, the Conservatives refuse to sit on NSICOP, calling it a committee of the PMO. Mr. O’Toole wants it transformed into a standing committee of Parliament.
Mr. Rigby agreed the committee’s mandate could be changed, but he said its members, who have access to top-secret information, are not under the thumb of the PMO.
“It is an extremely solid and reputable body,” he said. “I can tell you in my close work with NSICOP over more than a year and half, I saw no political interference in their work whatsoever.”
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