Johnston Says Not All Intelligence Reviewed in Reaching His Conclusions on Foreign Interference

Johnston Says Not All Intelligence Reviewed in Reaching His Conclusions on Foreign Interference
David Johnston, Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference, appears as a witness at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee in Ottawa on June 6, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Noé Chartier

Special Rapporteur David Johnston says he did not consult all relevant information to produce his report on foreign interference as opposition MPs challenged its conclusions during his testimony before a parliamentary committee on June 6.

“Am I confident that we saw every bit of information that we would like to have had or perhaps should have had, given the ocean of information? The answer is no,” Johnston said before the House of Commons Procedure and House Affairs committee on June 6.

“I’m not sure how we could absorb any more than we had in the space of eight weeks.”

Johnston was appointed special rapporteur by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in mid-March amid calls for a public inquiry, and recommended against holding an inquiry in his first report tabled on May 23.

One of his arguments against holding an inquiry is that the process is lengthy, but his admission he was pressed for time in reviewing the intelligence gave some ammunition to the opposition.

Bloc Québecois MP Alain Therrien said this speedier work to address the foreign interference issue is leading to a “botched” job. “[It’s] faster, but we won’t shed light,” he said.

Other MPs also sought answers as to how Johnston came to certain conclusions in a section of his report where he reviews the allegations that surfaced in recent months.

“How could you have such different conclusions from what Mr. O'Toole received?” asked NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who took the rare step for a leader of participating in committee proceedings.

Singh was referring to former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole speaking in the House of Commons on May 30 about a briefing he received from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). O’Toole said he was told by CSIS that he and his party had been targeted by Beijing during the 2021 federal election.

Singh pointed to a section of the report which goes over allegations reported in the media that former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu had been targeted by a “misinformation” campaign.

Johnston wrote that the “misinformation could not be traced to a state-sponsored source.”

“The evidence that we had before us that permitted us to come to the conclusion as you suggest was what was available to us that time,” said Johnston.

Conservative MP Michael Cooper asked Johnston whether this meant he didn’t have all the material evidence and intelligence when he drafted his report.

“When we drafted our report, we had the intelligence then available from CSIS and other sources and that was the basis of our conclusion,” said Johnston.

Cooper pressed Johnston and he repeated working with the information “available to us.”

“The only way to reconcile what Mr. O'Toole says versus what is in your record is one of three things: either you omitted material information, you misinterpreted that information, or this government withheld that information from you,” said Cooper.

Conservative MP Raquel Dancho remarked that Johnston’s report had not addressed media coverage by The Globe and Mail regarding a Chinese regime-linked donation to the Trudeau Foundation in 2016.

Johnston had been a member of the Trudeau Foundation since 2018 until he was appointed as special rapporteur.

Dancho said not addressing the allegation that Beijing sought to influence Justin Trudeau with its donation leads to a “perception of bias, whether warranted or not.”

Johnston repeated he was impartial a number of times during the committee meeting. “To suggest that I’m part of a Liberal clique is just wrong,” he told Dancho.

The House of Commons voted on May 31 with a majority asking Johnston to step down but he said he would stay on to fulfill his mandate from the government. The next step of his foreign interference review includes public hearings.
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