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Mitch Heimpel: Ottawa needs a blast of sunlight and transparency — desperately
The "special rapporteur" and "coordinator" exist to get the government enough distance and time from the story to hope that the public moves on to something else.
By: Mitch Heimpel
By 1974, the American people looked like they had enough.
The preceding decade had included reports and rumours of CIA involvement into everything from the Bay of Pigs to assassination attempts against foreign leaders and involvement in the Watergate burglary.
One thing the Senate of the United States apparently understood, was that having an intelligence agency that could operate entirely in secret, whose culture was increasingly clubbish and insulated, was fundamentally cancerous to a democratic society. Into that breach stepped Senator Frank Church. Over the course of two years, Church's bipartisan committee conducted 126 hearings (many of them televised), 40 subcommittee hearings, had 150 staff and conducted 800 witness interviews. The resulting report that it released — in which it did redact classified material — ran more than 2,700 pages and six volumes, and it was released over the expressed request of the President of the United States at the time, Gerald Ford.
Church exposed assassination attempts, the COINTELPRO operation in which the Agency infiltrated domestic political organizations, and MKULTRA, which was a program of illegal human experimentation including electroshock, psychoactive drugs (like LSD) and hypnosis.
And this was the declassified stuff.
I am not saying CSIS needs another Church Committee. I'm saying all of official Ottawa needs another Church Committee.
If the last two weeks has exposed anything, it is that secrecy and contempt — not English and French — have become Ottawa's two official languages.
Canadians have been told so many times over the last two weeks what we don't have a right to know that we all ought to be fed up to our eyeballs with the lot of them. We send members of Parliament to Ottawa, vest them with extraordinary constitutional investigative powers, and then have public servants appear in front of them to inform them that they will refuse to answer certain questions. It feels as though we far too often have to remind those in power, elected or unelected, that they are required to govern with the consent of the governed. And there is no such thing as "uninformed consent."
At the core of this fight between the need to protect confidential information, and the need to respect the transparency that democracy demands, we are all retreating into our particular policy preferences. In that way, the Church Committee is instructive. The public has the right to the most information that can safely be provided. Obviously, you don't describe sources and methods of gathering intelligence. But the public has a right to more information than has been provided to this point. But our civil service has behaved in a manner as to suggest that the public has no right to any additional information at all, and that kind of high-handed contempt is fundamentally unsustainable in any democracy. It will, unfailingly, undermine the very things that it's trying to protect.
Those who are saying that our examination into foreign interference should go beyond two elections do have a point in one very specific regard. For years, CSIS has been briefing just about anyone who would listen including financial institutions, telecommunications companies, universities, parliamentarians, the civil service and our allies about deliberate attempts by the government of the People's Republic of China to interfere with, and influence, the function of core Canadian institutions. This has included, importantly, attempts to intimidate members of the Chinese-Canadian diaspora community — including threats to the safety of their family members.
We should ask ourselves why so many of these warnings went unheeded. Were intelligence estimates in which trained security professionals had reasonable confidence edited out of briefings to the "political side" of government? Did CSIS or the RCMP downplay information in which it should have vested greater confidence? Were low-confidence intelligence estimates leaked to the media, and in briefings were they were disregarded in favour of intelligence in which agencies had greater confidence? We don't know, and nobody seems to be in much of a bloody rush to give us any answers. But these are all things a public inquiry can actually examine, and should, because these are questions of institutional failure and not the processes of acquiring intelligence — and they require findings of fact.
The extent of the problem of foreign interference (largely but not exclusively Chinese) has been whispered about, and reported on, in Ottawa for years. Often repeatedly. And yet, official Ottawa — that coterie of politicians and courtiers near the nexus of this country's national decision-making — has made more of a stink about catching those individuals at CSIS, or elsewhere, who leaked the material. To be sure, the Security of Information Act is the law of the land, and it should be taken seriously. I'll even go a step beyond that and say that every government has the right to believe that it is making decisions that will be complied with by a non-partisan public service whose right to dissent has to only occur in private in order for their advice to be taken seriously at all.
But, if the information reported by the Globe and Mail, and Global, reflects real intelligence — and all indications to this point have been that it does — then we have to sometimes accept that there is such a thing as a virtuous leak. As much as it might absolutely pain us to do so.
That is how you end up with a "special rapporteur" and a "coordinator" for the various acronyms like NSICOP and NSIRA, that you'd never heard of before this announcement. You end up with everything except sunlight and transparency because those who make the decisions will come as close as they are humanly able to telling you that you do not have a right to know, without saying it.
We got a "rapporteur" and a "coordinator" on the same day that we found out the RCMP has launched an investigation into who gave confidential information to a media outlet. Such investigations rarely turn up an answer. Reporters have no incentive to turn in sources. Anyone sophisticated enough to leak information like this is also sophisticated enough to know how to cover their tracks. But you see, gentle reader, the investigation isn't aimed at these leakers, it's aimed at preventing future leakers. Because preventing future leakers is key to making sure that the "special rapporteur" and "coordinator" are able to accomplish their unstated goal of getting the government enough distance and time from the story to hope that the public moves on to something else. And, of course, the RCMP has never been subject to political interference itself — never.
A public inquiry would come with costs. Yes. It would be hard to keep some information classified. You can control for that with the appropriate clearances and a secure, and impartial redacting process for the final report — just like the Church Committee did. It would likely be a better process than waiting on the next media leak.
It would probably strain relationships with China. But, after the alleged election interference, the detention of two Canadians, the threats made against thousands of Canadians in Hong Kong, and the ongoing genocide, a little strain might be called for.
I was asked this week by a friend of my father's if I honestly believed that Beijing interfered in the 2021 election. I told him it didn't impact the result. I believe that. I also told him that, yes, I believed our elections were now the target of persistent and, to varying degrees, effective interference from the Chinese Communist Party.
He, and millions of other Canadians, deserve a public process that tells them why.
Mitch Heimpel has served Conservative cabinet ministers and party leaders at the provincial and federal levels, and is currently the director of campaigns and government relations at Enterprise Canada.
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