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Minister of Health Mark Holland gestures to a reporter as he takes questions in the Foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa on Feb. 28.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

It seems careless to let uncleared foreign researchers roam unattended in a high-security microbiology lab, as one of the scientists fired in 2020, Keding Cheng, did.

To the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, it seemed even more careless, and suspicious, that his wife and colleague, Xiangguo Qiu, hadn’t told her employers she took a side trip to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Or that she had applied to a “talent program” in China that the Canadian spy agency suspected was connected to commercial espionage.

In the larger sense, the whole thing was an example of carelessness, here in Canada.

How did this happen? Nobody was looking, not really. The little things, like breaches of e-mail protocol, didn’t get noticed, sure. But the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg wasn’t on the lookout for espionage. Neither was the government of Canada, in a sense. It wasn’t tuned in to the extensive efforts of Beijing to gain advantage from scientific and academic research.

Health Minister Mark Holland said as much on Wednesday, when he told reporters that security at the lab was more lax than it should have been, but nobody should be fired. Mr. Holland said that in 2019 – when Dr. Cheng was first sent home – people didn’t have the same awareness of potential interference from China.

He’s right, too. The government of Canada wasn’t aware enough. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberals hadn’t come alive to it. They hadn’t made all the major institutions of government alive to it. That certainly came late. Let’s hope it is here now.

To be fair, in this case even the professionally suspicious people at CSIS, called in to investigate the two esteemed scientists, found nothing more sinister than sloppy adherence to the rules on their first pass, according to the hundreds of pages released Wednesday.

It took further work before the spies found a series of connections to institutions of the People’s Republic, unreported contacts in China, and links to a scientist who was a major-general in the People’s Liberation Army. The documents indicate that CSIS interviewers judged the two scientists, Chinese-born Canadians in the country since the 1990s, were not credible when they were asked to explain.

It’s still not clear what information the two might have revealed to foreigners. The documents include a CSIS assessment that scientific knowledge was provided to China, but there are suggestions the concerns are about intellectual property, or commercial espionage. CSIS also warned that Dr. Qiu worked with institutions linked to the Chinese military whose goals could include “potentially lethal military application.”

All that is embarrassing to the lab, and to the Public Health Agency of Canada, and to the government of Canada.

And the national-security concerns that kept the government fighting the release of the documents for years was, it turns out, mostly about that embarrassment.

We don’t know precisely what was redacted under the supervision of an all-party group of MPs and judges, but we now know for sure that what was previously censored – just about everything – went too far.

The release of the CSIS assessments about two Canadian scientists which concluded they were a risk but found no evidence of crimes, was unusual. But it was clear from what was released that disclosure was possible without tripping the dangers claimed by the government to national-security and international relations. Beijing, certainly, knows that CSIS harbours a few suspicions about its activities.

Perhaps the only thing that really might injure Canada’s international relations is that allies might find Canada’s naiveté, even in 2019, a tad unsettling.

The documents give a little suggestion of an unsuspecting trust about transferring pathogens and inviting folks into the high-security lab that sounds preciously Canadian. There isn’t much sense that the government writ large was any less careless.

Mr. Holland’s assertion that folks hadn’t cottoned on to espionage in 2019 is probably true, and not very reassuring. There were certainly signs of widespread Chinese espionage before then. There have been headlines since, and now a public inquiry on foreign interference. Being careless has consequences.

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