Canada faces a conundrum as it investigates possible election interference by China, Russia, and others. How does a public inquiry handle top-secret intelligence?
Early on, Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue’s team asked for 13 documents held by Canada’s federal spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. CSIS took 200 person-hours to review and redact the intelligence - roughly 15 hours per document. Some of the records were almost entirely stripped of information by the end of the process. CSIS Director David Vigneault appeared before the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in early 2024 to explain that the purpose of the federal spy agency is to have secrets: “These documents, their entire essence, was to be full of secrets and classified information.”
While CSIS intends to cooperate with the commission, it is not clear how. The issue isn't black and white.
“We are learning that countering foreign influence operations, including election interference, is very different from countering espionage in the classic sense: the attempt to steal secrets,” says Alex Finley, a former CIA officer-turned-author who runs a course in Foreign Influence Operations. “Countering influence operations does require a certain amount of transparency and sharing with the public what our adversaries are up to because the public is the target of the operation. Transparency can help neutralize the op."
To further complicate matters, Canada is a member of the Five Eyes alliance - a clandestine club that gives CSIS access to secrets from the US, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand - so there are international relations to consider as well as Canada's diplomatic relationship with China, who 'strongly deplores' the inquiry.
“In the case of Five Eyes, of course, this is difficult, because intelligence originates with different countries, all of whom want to protect their sources and methods, and some of whom might face different geopolitical calculations. It is a hard balance to strike,” adds Alex Finley, who is also a SPYEX consultant.
The problem has sparked international debate about the Canadian public’s right to know if their elections are being compromised vs. CSIS's need for secrecy. The national Globe and Mail newspaper published an editorial headlined: The Truth Should Not Be [Redacted]. The BBC questioned why Canada is so vulnerable to foreign interference. Others wondered if Canada's spy agency is 'over-classifying' intelligence. Three former Canadian spy chiefs also weighed in, encouraging the Inquiry to challenge government censorship.