How to stop our elections from foreign meddling

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on August 27, 2018

Whatever side you take on the investigation by former FBI Director Robert Mueller on whether the Trump campaign team colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential elections – either it is a very serious allegation of wrongdoing by the current president and/or his supporters or a useless and partisan witch hunt – one thing is beyond debate: there was interference by Russia.  Putin’s state used fake online accounts, spread fake news, posted material that clearly undermined candidate Hillary Clinton’s reputation and did everything it could to lower the turnout by those more likely to vote Democrat.  Simply put, a foreign state interfered in the election process of another country in a surreptitious and sneaky manner.  Case closed.

To be sure, the US election of two years ago was not the only such misdeed by Russia.  Other states where Russia is alleged to have interfered  include France, Germany, the UK and even tiny Montenegro.  At least we can say that Russia was not playing favourites!

What then is Canada doing to protect the integrity of our next trip to the polls in 2019?  A lot it appears.  As The Hill Times reported on August 15 several efforts are underway to ensure to the extent possible that what happened in the US does not get repeated here.  Each of Canada’s main political parties claims it is doing what it can to protect against foreign interference by boosting its own internal security.

One of the main players advising governments and officials on the risks to their operations is CSE – Communications Security Establshment, Canada’s premier cyber security agency (among other things).  This appears to me to be a relatively new role for the organisation (at least I think so: we sure weren’t doing this when I worked there from 1983 to 2000).  CSE should be commended for its efforts on behalf of Canada and Canadians.

At the same time there appears to be little mention of another major intelligence player in our country.  I am referring of course to CSIS, where I spent the second half of my three-decade long career.  Am I the only one who finds this curious?  Should CSIS not have a role to play in safeguarding our electoral process and the integrity of our democratic institutions?  I for one believe the answer to that is yes.

Canadians might think that CSIS is primarily a counter terrorism organisation but two of the three main focuses of its investigative powers and efforts refer explicitly to foreign-based interference and influence operations.  Citing sections 2 a) and b) of the CSIS Act we find “espionage or sabotage that is against Canada or is detrimental to the interests of Canada or activities directed toward or in support of such espionage or sabotage” and “foreign influenced activities within or relating to Canada that are detrimental to the interests of Canada and are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any person.”  Heck we could even throw in the rarely considered 2 d) “activities directed toward undermining by covert unlawful acts, or directed toward or intended ultimately to lead to the destruction or overthrow by violence of, the constitutionally established system of government in Canada,” which we probably normally associate with Canadian actors, although the clause does not rule out foreign agents.

Based on this alone CSIS definitely has a contribution to make in this regard.  CSIS can leverage its substantial resources in many ways: the recruitment and deployment of human sources, court-acquired intercept warrants, physical surveillance, etc.  All these tools can help other efforts to locate and stop foreign actors from mucking about in our elections.  The government should have CSIS at the table, if it is not there already.

We hold our democratic principles dearly and if the state cannot guarantee the entirety and the integrity of the voting process it should come as a surprise to no one that that state’s citizens begin to doubt the legitimacy of the state.   We cannot allow outsiders to interfere since it is highly probable that their interests in doing so do not mirror ours.  The government should invite as many relevant and qualified agencies and agents as it needs.  CSIS is on that list.

Phil Gurski is a former strategic analyst with CSIS, an author and the Director of Intelligence and Security at the SecDev Group.

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.

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