CSIS warned MPs, senators that hostile states might listen in on their conversations
Canada’s intelligence agency warned MPs and senators ahead of the 2021 election that their public conversations probably would be monitored by foreign states and that threat actors could target their staff, according to recently obtained documents.
“You are of immediate and constant interest to certain hostile state actors,” reads a copy of Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) talking points prepared for briefings with elected officials prior to the 2021 election.
While the fact that CSIS briefed some MPs before the election is public knowledge, the briefing document — obtained through an access to information request — sheds light on what was said behind closed doors and raises questions about how effective the briefings were.
“I think you’d have to describe it as a pretty basic overview,” said Wesley Wark, a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
“But essentially, this is a security intelligence agency approaching a group of MPs with a belief — which seems to have been borne out — that members of Parliament, at least at that time, have really very little understanding of foreign interference issues.”
The document’s release comes as a parliamentary committee probing claims of interference in Canadian elections by Beijing prepares to hear from the people who oversaw the two main parties’ campaigns during the 2019 and 2021 elections.
Former Liberal national campaign directors Jeremy Broadhurst and Azam Ishmael will take questions from MPs starting after 11 a.m. ET. They’ll be followed by former Conservative national campaign directors Fred DeLorey and Hamish Marshall.
The goal of the briefings, said CSIS, was to alert Parliamentarians to the threat and to “create political resiliency against the People’s Republic of China’s foreign interference efforts in Canada.”
According to the CSIS briefing document, elected officials were warned of the “tradecraft” of certain hostile states. They were warned about “elicitation,” for example — that’s when a foreign actor provides an individual with limited or false information in the hope that the target will correct them and provide the right answers.
“To protect yourself, be aware of attempts by individuals to elicit information from you and avoid ‘oversharing’ whenever possible,” said the briefing document.
“You should assume public conversations are monitored.”
Some state actors are playing the long game and can be “extremely patient in their interference efforts,” CSIS warned. The agency said threat actors will use innocuous social gatherings and shared interests to build relationships with politicians in order to exert leverage down the road.
“To protect yourself, be aware and keep track of strange social interactions, frequent requests to meet privately, and out-of-place introductions or engagements. Be aware of efforts targeting your staff, and also note odd attempts seeking employment with your office,” said the briefing document.
Even an MP’s calendar could be a target, CSIS warned.
“It is important to also note that sometimes, threat actors will seek to use staff members to interfere in your schedule and set up opportunities for cultivation,” said the document.
The spy agency said threat actors might also use MPs and their campaigns to conduct illicit financing.
“Political parties’ candidates may also receive funds seemingly from a Canadian, though this may have originated from a foreign threat actor,” CSIS wrote.
“Question the origins of spontaneously large donations from unknown individuals who may appear to have linkages to a foreign government and be aware of how fundraising events are structured and operated. Staff members may also be impacted by such activities.”
CSIS is responsible for advising the federal government on security matters but is strictly constrained in terms of who can view its classified and operational information.
Those restrictions, said Wark, were reflected in how limited the briefings were with parliamentarians.
“It’s all very, very general,” he said. “I think this was really meant to be the starting point, not the endpoint for a conversation.”
Wark said CSIS might also have sought briefings with parliamentarians in order to mine them for information about foreign interference.
“CSIS would never describe it this way, but there’s a little bit of an intelligence-gathering dynamic to these briefings,” Wark said.
Using blackmail to manipulate MPs, senators
According to the briefing notes, CSIS told MPs and senators that in extreme cases a hostile threat actor might use blackmail or threats to ensure an elected official’s cooperation. Family members can also be targeted by blackmail, the agency warned.
For example, CSIS said states might use compromising information to pressure an MP to forgo certain events or not travel to politically sensitive locations.
“Hostile states may threaten to negatively impact your financial/electoral support, even threaten to support an opponent,” said CSIS.
During a parliamentary committee hearing earlier this month, Conservative MP Michael Cooper alleged that former Conservative candidate Bob Saroya did receive a shadowy text from Beijing’s consul general in Toronto ahead of the 2021 election.
Cooper said his former caucus colleague received a “cryptic and threatening text message” telling him he would no longer be an MP.
Saroya, who represented Markham-Unionville between his election in 2015 and losing his seat in 2021, has not returned CBC’s request for comment.
CSIS’s final two talking points focused on cyber tools and social media manipulation.
“Do not mix personal and professional devices,” CSIS advised.
‘”Do not use untrusted applications or software developed in hostile states with nebulous or problematic legal regimes. If you must use untrusted applications, do so on a ‘clean’ device which does not contain personal or professional information.”
The number of MPs who were invited to sit in on the CSIS briefings was redacted. The agency did not respond to CBC’s request for comment, which was sent on Friday.
Meanwhile, according to a series of CSIS emails, also obtained as part of an access to information release, the list of MPs who were offered briefings had to be shortened “due to resource and time constraints.”
“We realize that due to a delay in getting these approvals, there will be a rush to get as much done before the potential fall election being called,” wrote an unnamed intelligence officer.
Generally, CSIS said, MPs wanted to know “what is foreign interference and what is not; how to deal with large ethnic diasporas in their ridings, how it might affect them (specifically individuals and/or organizations in their riding that were involved in [foreign interference]” and “how to protect their electronic devices.”
WATCH | Former MP tells committee he was undermined by foreign inference
The specifics of what MPs raised in those briefings were largely redacted, although at least one MP “raised the issue of being censored on WeChat,” according to a report following that briefing.
Since the 2021 election, former Conservative B.C. MP Kenny Chiu has alleged publicly that he was the target of propaganda and disinformation during the campaign on WeChat, a messaging app popular with many Chinese-speaking users.
MPs still have questions about interference
While CSIS called the briefings “a landmark national engagement campaign,” their effectiveness is questionable.
Earlier this year, MPs on a parliamentary committee probing foreign interference told CSIS officials they struggle to spot foreign interference.
“There is not clarity, quite frankly, around what MPs and their parties can do to protect themselves,” NDP MP Rachel Blaney said.
“I’m concerned that there could be something happening and I would be merrily going along my way, doing my work during an election, and I’d have no idea.”
Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell, who held a top security clearance during her time on the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), said there is “little to no briefings or training for MPs.”
“So clearly that issue [has] persisted,” said the Toronto-area MP.
CSIS Director David Vigneault has said he believes the agency’s enabling law is hindering how his officials can spread warnings.
“Our act enables advice to government but limits our ability to provide relevant advice to key partners,” he said in a 2021 speech.