Johnston’s Report on Election Interference Is Gaslighting Canadians

The Johnston report on Chinese interference in Canadian elections was an egregious waste of time and energy and a cynical ploy by the Trudeau government

This piece appeared in the Epoch Times on May 24, 2023.

Well, there we have it. Former Governor General David Johnston has delivered his much-awaited report on China’s interference in our federal elections. It is fairly thorough, looking at the intelligence process in Canada, the importance of democracy, how governments make decisions, etc., etc., etc. And in the end, Johnston recommended against creating a public inquiry into this matter.

Hip, hip, hooray… to some extent. I have argued in these pages and elsewhere that there is no need for a public inquiry into what Beijing did to undermine our electoral process. My reasons are varied: a public inquiry would not allow the highly classified and very crucial intelligence to be aired; inquiries in Canada have a habit of making many recommendations that are seldom acted upon; inquiries cost money and money is tight these days; we already know a great deal about what happened thanks to intelligence leaks.

And yet his report strikes me as something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself wrote, begging the question of why we paid Johnston in the first place. Trudeau’s team is exonerated from any serious responsibility for failing to take action to prevent/punish the Chinese regime for its actions. The blame lies elsewhere, primarily with the country’s intelligence services and the opposition party’s partisan misuse of the issue.

Champagne bottles must be uncorking at 24 Sussex Drive! Oh, wait, that location is under repair and Trudeau is currently living on the grounds of the governor general of which Johnston was one, so… (conspiracy theorists will have a ball with this!).

I may be biased, having spent 32 years in Canadian intelligence—with both CSIS and CSE, the head honchos of which were supposedly consulted for the report—but the blame game seems to be a classic case of ‘shoot the messenger.’

Johnston says that there is something wrong with how intelligence is distributed within the government: that is probably true but, unlike his suggestion, that is not the fault of CSIS/CSE but rather the recipients of this valuable information. Intelligence may be sent to departments, not named individuals, but that is done to ensure maximum exposure (sending it to one person risks having reports get lost in someone’s inbox during vacation).

Furthermore, Johnston also devoted significant time and space to the undermining of intelligence, calling it ‘rumours’ and piecemeal, suggesting that it is neither necessary nor reliable. Yes, not all intelligence is accurate (human sources can lie: just ask the Americans about Curveball and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction) but the bedrock of intelligence is corroboration from multiple sources.

I may not have access to this data anymore but from what I have read in OSINT (open source intelligence) it is clear that the information handed on a silver platter to senior government officials was multi-sourced and had been collected, processed, and analyzed over many, many years. This was not the ‘single brushstroke’ Johnston described in his report.

He also made sure that he reiterated the notion that intelligence can lead to racist mentalities.  I find this most egregious as it suggests that our intelligence agencies are part of a campaign to slander Chinese Canadians in some kind of anti-Asian campaign. His mere emphasis on this point in several places in his report requires an apology to the women and men of CSIS and CSE who work hard to provide the intelligence required to make better decisions.

Overall, I was struck by how Johnston’s words left the very strong impression that intelligence isn’t very good: if that is true why would any government use it? Again, this is inaccurate and unfair.

Then there is the accusation of ‘malice’ on the part of the individual who leaked CSIS intelligence to The Globe and Mail. No, I do not support such leaks, although I share the leaker’s frustration at decades of government inaction in the face of such blatant foreign interference. But had this information not been made public, Canadians would not have known anything about this threat and the government’s inaction thereon. Calling it ‘malice’ is an insult to the individual and is a remarkable assumption on the part of Johnston.

The bottom line is that this report was a waste of time and money. The government gets off more or less scot-free (um, is that a racist saying?) and we all move on. Our own officials do not care enough about our democracy to defend it. And China et al learn that mucking about in our society goes unpunished.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.