31 May 2019

Foreign interferences on electoral processes. Is it Canada’s turn?

Liviu Ioniţă

The Canadian media was speculating, at the beginning of April, about an investigation on the foreign interferences and espionage actions on Canada’s territory, whose results would be revealed before this autumn’s legislative elections. The investigation was going to be made by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians/ NSICOP, which has identified some influence campaigns on the Canadian territory, coming from states like China, Russia and others.

Image source: Mediafax

What’s NSICOP? It is a committee composed of 9 parliamentarians, coming from both Canadian parliament’s chambers, assigned by the prime-minister and that has security authorizations. It is a group that was created quite recently, in June 2017, aiming at investigating the activity of the entire Canadian intelligence community. Before its creation, Canada was the only “Five Eyes” member that did not had its own parliamentary monitoring body for the national security agencies, to verify and systematically control the intelligence community, accordingly with NSICOP’s definition, all the governmental organizations responsible with Canadians’ safety and the promotion of Canadians’ interests abroad.

There are many independent executive commissions in Canada, which are verifying the security intelligence service, communication security agency and the royal police’s activities. Also, the Parliament has committees/commissions that have different tasks, which matches the field, like the National Security and Defence, but their activity involves unclassified information access.

After founding Parliamentarians’ Committee for National Security and Intelligence, they are starting the verifications of all the legislative, political and financial activities of every department/ agency in the national security and intelligence field. NSICOP is different from any other committee composed of parliamentarians. Being created though a parliamentary document, the Committee works outside the Parliament, being more in the Canadian executive’s responsibility, it is asking its members to have the highest security authorization level and has access, for its analyses, to all the relevant information of Canada’s different security organization, except for the ones related to witnesses’ protection or pending investigations. NSICOP is directly reporting to the prime-minister, who receives the classified reports. In fact, this field’s Canadian legislations are being reviewed, hence, according to a 2018 initiative, they are planning to create a structure that will complete NSICOP, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA). It will not have a thorough mandate to verify all the security activities and investigate this field’s complaints. Although independent in terms of fields and verifications’ targets, NSICOP and NSIRA will cooperate, as their functioning will be a progress comparing to the current verification structures.

Foreign interference- second national security threat

Canadian mass-media’s comments on the supposed investigation were made after NSICOP revealed, on 9th of April, its first report, after a short activity, a complete and secrete version being also delivered, previously, to prime-minister Justin Trudeau, in December. In NSICOP’s 2018 report, country’s second national security threat (after terrorism) is foreign influence and espionage. China, Russia and some other states (unnamed in report’s public version) are the ones developing such activities. Russia has repeatedly sent its influence agents in Canada and China is globally known for its efforts across the Chinese communities and policies of different countries. The Canadian security intelligence service has informed the Committee about the increasing foreign influence and espionage threat, which was asking for a more firm response in 2019. Therefore, the Committee has decided to investigate the foreign interference problem, in order to identify the aggressive measures that some states are adopting to influence the political processes and weaken the Canadian institutions, claiming that it is something which affects the democratic values and the national security. The Committee will investigate, in 2019, the threats generated by the foreign interference over Canada’s security and they will take measures to combat it, says the report.

 Liberal deputy, David McGuinty, president of NSICOP, and Rennie Marcoux, executive director of Committee’s Secretariate, have approached, during a press conference, the first annual report, as well as the intention to launch an investigation on the foreign influences and espionage, highlighting that it is necessary to get the results before the federal elections. Rennie Marcoux has refused to name the other countries that may deploy espionage activities in Canada, saying that, at the time speaking, he could only talk about China and Russia, given that, the Canadian government has already talked, in the past, about these two states’ espionage activities and cyber-attacks. The investigation would clarify threat’s magnitude and the involved actors in foreign interference actions, but McGuinty has diplomatically affirmed that the future elections are not necessarily targeted.

A novelty- the Reaction Forces for elections’ protection

There are many concerns in Canada about the possibility for the electoral scrutiny to be affected, given the cyber-threat warning issued by the Canadian Communication Security Establishment on a possible foreign digital invasion that would target the October elections. In a recent cyber-threats upgrade material, over Canada’s democratic process, the agency has specified that the foreign intervention attempts will be similar, but on a smaller scale, to the ones developed, in the last years, by other advanced democracies. Also, the Canadian officials are stating that, although they are expecting Russian actions too, it is less likely for them to be alike the ones developed against the US 2016 presidential elections (Chrystia Freeland statement, Foreign Affairs Minister).

In order to avoid the speculated threats to actually affect the elections, the government has created, in January 2019, the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force (SITE), whereat are contributing also the intelligence services, whose task is prime-minister and parties’ prevention, and then the citizens, about the possible critical electoral incidents. Also, there were created programs dedicated to Canadians’ information and education, for them to be able to analyze the data speculated on the social media and recognize the manipulation attempts, asking, also, social media to act to so that to encourage transparency, authenticity and contribute to freedom of votes maintenance.

Mass-media (BuzFeed News and Star Toronto) is also seeking methods the political parties, pressure groups, foreign powers and people could use to influence Canada’s political debates in the period before this autumn’s federal elections. The analysis on foreign interferences will be made before dissolving the effective parliament. NSICOP’s deadline (when its activity on the current version will end once with parliament’s dissolution) to end the report on foreign interferences is 3th of May, which allows another version to be presented in the Parliament and be brought in front of the citizens, before the elections.

The “Five Eyes” community follows Canada’s example

Canadian society’s perspective on foreign actions against electoral process, also accredited by the intelligence services, raises some questions. Therefore, it is speculated that foreign interference’s threat, seen as insignificant by some people, could be used not to block fake news’ diffusion, but to undermine the unwanted information and different perspectives from mainstream. What some could call protection actions of the Canadian democracy could, actually, turn the other way around (Paul Robinson analysis, professor at the Public and International Businesses of Ottawa University). Hence, why would Russia interfere in the electoral process? Canada’s membership at the G7 and NATO structures, the motivation Communications Security Establishment offers are rather facts than an explanation (Thomas Walkom, Toronto Star).

On the other hand, Canada’s Five Eyes partners which are about to develop, also, electoral elections, seem to have similar opinions as the Canadian security services have about their own elections. Hence, a few days ago, the director of the Australian Intelligence Service, Duncan Lewis, has reiterated his estimation on the foreign interferences across the 18th of May 2019 Australian Parliamentary elections, stating that these are unexampled. Although commentaries were made before a “Four Corners” journalism investigation program documentary, belonging to the Australian television, which was about the magnitude of the political activity deployed by Chinese people in Australia, Duncan Lewis has actually refused to name the states whose actions have led to such conclusions. Also recently, the chief of the local intelligence services, Rebecca Kitteridge from New Zeeland, has stated that the agency she leads is concerned with the activities of some foreign actors, able to find their weak points and order to project their influence. The next New Zeeland elections are planned for 2020, and the attempts to interfere in the national policy have become more sophisticated, says Rebecca Kitteridge. The neo-Zealander chief of intelligence has stated, in front of a parliamentary commission, that the security structures have created a plan to combat the possible foreign interferences threat, already having a significant evolution comparing to the 2017 vote, when there were no interferences at all. 

Whether it is based on substantial information, or are only being considered the unfortunate experiences of the other two “Five Eyes” partner countries, Great Britain and the US, given the Cambridge Analytica and the Russian concerns, Canada, Australia and New Zeeland’s security services are taking serious measures for the following electoral elections and, furthermore, are doing it publicly. It is a warning for others, however, a security guarantee for their own citizens.