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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in public hearings for an independent commission probing alleged foreign interference in Canadian elections in Ottawa on April 10.Blair Gable/Reuters

So, how does the Prime Minister hear about intelligence again?

It’s not from reading. There are a lot of documents, Justin Trudeau told the Foreign Interference Commission on Wednesday, but if you want to get a national security message to a busy prime minister, you brief him in person.

But listen to Mr. Trudeau talk about how that magic happens and you might end up being a little unclear on the actual protocol for translating the essential national security intelligence crafted in secret documents into verbal information for the head of government.

“When it came to briefing and taking actions and understanding the context, it happened through secure briefings and conversations that were primarily receiving information, us asking questions, us directing further actions or research in this area or that area that they then take away to do,” Mr. Trudeau told the commission.

He went on to say that he wouldn’t want anyone to think that, just because he hadn’t read a 2020 memo from his national security and intelligence adviser David Morrison, he didn’t get the content through briefings.

Okay, so verbal briefings are how it’s done. Still, the question of whether key messages get to the Prime Minister clearly is less clear. Mr. Trudeau’s testimony made it evident that sometimes they do. But sometimes they don’t.

Editorial: Let the foreign-interference inquiry do its job, Prime Minister

If you recall the confident Prime Minister who appeared in 2022 at the inquiry into the use of the Emergencies Act, on top of his files and clear about the process, you’d notice this testimony was different. Mr. Trudeau is still confident, no doubt, and engaged and prepared – but this time his portrayal of the process and his part in it wasn’t as crisp or as clear.

He was adamant in defending his decisions. He said that when the Canadian Security Intelligence Service briefed him during the 2019 election campaign that Chinese officials might have aided Han Dong in winning the Liberal nomination in the Toronto riding of Don Valley North, there wasn’t solid information, or any indication that Mr. Dong was involved. Mr. Trudeau said the intelligence wasn’t enough to justify dropping Mr. Dong as a candidate.

But Mr. Trudeau wasn’t nearly as clear in describing how his role at the top works as he was at the inquiry in 2022.

Certainly, part of that is the nature of the topic at hand this time around. There were things the Prime Minister said he knew but couldn’t talk about.

But there were also things that intelligence officials meant to tell Mr. Trudeau, apparently, but never managed to spit out in a verbal briefing.

When Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, testified about foreign interference at a parliamentary committee in April, 2023, she said the Prime Minister reads every document he receives about intelligence.

On Wednesday, it was different. A summary of the commission’s prehearing interview with Mr. Trudeau, made public Wednesday, said he reads intelligence reports when he can. But if he can’t, the summary said, he “trusts that someone else, specifically the National Security and Intelligence Advisor, will tell him if there is something important that he needs to know.”

One document tabled at the inquiry, a 2022 note prepared for CSIS Director David Vigneault to use in briefing Mr. Trudeau, included stark language about the seriousness of foreign interference and warned that the Canadian government must change its approach and take action.

On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau’s aides told the commission they had never seen that document and said the Prime Minister’s briefing didn’t include anything like those warnings.

On Wednesday, when asked if the briefing had reflected the documents, Mr. Trudeau said, “not particularly.” He added that Mr. Vigneault wouldn’t have spent much time on the seriousness of the problem, because he would have known Mr. Trudeau was already conscious of that. Really? Mr. Vigneault left out a stark call for change because it was assumed?

There were other memos, also prepared for briefers, that the Prime Minister never saw. In looking at one during Wednesday’s hearing, Mr. Trudeau noted that the commission had seen that what is written in such documents isn’t always said in verbal briefings. He also said that when news stories based on intelligence reports about foreign interference appeared in late 2022, members of his staff asked officials to clarify whether his office had been briefed on the incidents.

The Prime Minister said he feels he is well briefed. But now, he’s no longer the Prime Minister who reads every intelligence document he receives. He’s the Prime Minister who trusts that someone will tell him if there’s something important. It seems the message doesn’t always get through.

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