Reaction to Johnston Report Reflects National Security and Intelligence Illiteracy

Wesley Wark

In a discussion the CDA Institute had with Thomas Juneau, he expressed skepticism about the added value of holding an inquiry, especially considering the ongoing activities of NSICOP, a number of parliamentary committees, and other mechanisms. What do you think about the decision not to hold an inquiry, and given what some see as, at least, a perception of conflict of interest, was Johnston the right individual to lead this investigation into foreign interference?

I think many people, including myself, were surprised that David Johnston decided not to call a public inquiry. That would have been the easiest, and certainly the most expected outcome from his first report. I think the reasons that he gave for deciding, instead, on a different path—a series of public hearings, that he wants to hold as the next phase of his mandate, to inform a report that he has to produce by the end of October, are ones that really resonate with me.

The question of the value of public hearings needs to be considered in the context of what the intended outcomes are. From my perspective, one of the most important outcomes of public hearings, which aren’t usually captured in judicial inquiries, is that you can open up questions and hear from a diversity of points of view. It’s important to try and ensure that the Canadian public at large better understands national security threats as well as the work and challenges of the intelligence community.

There’s a lot of opportunity presented by public inquiries to raise the level of what the CSIS director has called the problem of national security illiteracy in Canada. I think that is a serious problem. Many of the discussions around Mr. Johnston’s first report reflect this serious problem that people don’t really understand how national security and intelligence work. It shouldn’t be an area left simply for government insiders and the security and intelligence community, or for a handful of outside experts to debate.

I have taken part in three judicial inquiries over the past twenty years—Justice O’Connor’s inquiry into the Aurora fair, Justice Major’s inquiry into Air India, and most recently, the Public Order Emergency Commission (POEC) that looked at the freedom convoy protests held by Justice Rouleau. In all those cases, I think it remains open to question, what they actually achieved. More importantly, how much did those inquiries really advance public understanding of national security issues? Those reflections led me to a conclusion, even before David Johnston produced his first report, that a judicial inquiry wasn’t the way forward if transparency was really the objective, and if improving the Canadian public’s understanding of national security and intelligence was an objective.

A practical point that has been overlooked in much of the public discussion so far is that judicial inquiries take time. They operate in a certain judicial framework, of course, but they take time. The Arar inquiry took two and a half years. Justice Major’s Air India inquiry took over three years, Justice Rouleau’s inquiry was different because its framework was already set out in the Emergencies Act, but even there, as people will recall, Justice Rouleau complained, on many occasions, about the difficult timelines he faced. If we want to achieve greater degrees of public transparency, as well as arrive at practical recommendations, and if we’re wanting to move at some speed, and if people really are as convinced as they say they are that this is an urgent matter, then from my perspective, public hearings, frankly, offer a much better opportunity to achieve those two objectives than do judicial inquiry.

Do you think there’s any potential risk of losing focus on the escalating threat of foreign interference due to side battles over “public inquiry versus public hearings” and criticism of David Johnston’s role as “special rapporteur”?

It’s all part of the political theatre, I suppose, particularly being played out in Parliament. I think the reality is that people have come to learn, through leaked intelligence and media reports, that foreign interference is a problem, and it is likely to be an escalating problem. As Mr. Johnston said, it’s not a problem that’s going to go away. There are better ways to understand that problem than through selective leaks reported on by the media. The more eyes we have on this problem—whether it’s independent reporting from the National Security Intelligence Review agency, or independent reporting from the National Security Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians or Mr. Johnston’s report—the better. Out of that mix of reporting, rather than losing sight of the issue, I think we’re going to get a lot more attention to it. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have needed this plethora of reports.

As the prime minister said on March 6—I think he was right on this, it’s a kind of astounding thing to say—in asking the two independent review bodies to look at this question, he wasn’t sure that the public would fully accept their work. He said, to try and take it out of the partisan atmosphere, he would appoint an independent special rapporteur. We didn’t know at that point on March 6, who that person would be. Mr. Johnston’s reputation, integrity, and independence have been called into question. I don’t support any of that. But people are free to take whatever positions they like.

I think people should read his first report, as opposed to simply commenting on it. I would challenge people who actually read the report and think about it to say, “Well, this isn’t an independent report. It’s a whitewash”. The reality is that the report, in many places, is quite critical, especially concerning the current handling of threat reporting on foreign interference, and the machinery of government problems that he’s identified. It doesn’t strike me as a whitewash in any sense. My message to Canadians would be, read the report, give the public hearings a chance, and at the end of the day, if you’re not satisfied by the public hearings—fair enough. If you’re not satisfied by the recommendations that Mr. Johnston comes up with in October, fair enough, but at least we’ll have had the opportunity to have what I hope would be an unprecedented public debate.

Canadians can ask themselves, when was the last time we had a public debate about the conduct of intelligence in Canada? Well, the reality is never. Maybe you could go back to the MacDonald Commission at the end of the 1970s and say that was sort of a debate about the conduct of intelligence, but focused on one particular agency, but we’ve really never had this kind of thing. I think it’s high time.

In Canada, I think we have a tendency to focus on one national security threat at a time. Post-9/11, and the succeeding decade, it was all about the terrorism threat. Governments of whatever political stripe said over and over again, terrorism is the number one national security threat to Canada, without telling Canadians, the whole range of other national security threats. I fear that we’re exhibiting the same tendency to focus on one threat at the expense of others. The reality is that Canada currently faces a wide range of national security threats, of which foreign interference is only one. I think it’s incumbent on both government and the public to understand that and talk more about the diverse range of national security threats that we face, many of which probably matter more to Canadians, directly in terms of how they impact on their lives, than foreign interference might. I’m not dismissing the threat of foreign interference. I’m saying it’s one of many, and if we’re honest with ourselves, there are some more significant and serious threats to national security that we face.

As you mentioned, Johnston was quite critical of aspects of our intelligence and security establishments, specifically, in regard to information flows. Considering this, how can the Canadian government establish better governance structures and coordination within the intelligence system to ensure the effective flow of intelligence and attention from senior decision-makers?

Very often, when issues of intelligence failure come up, not just in Canada, but among allied countries, on all kinds of issues that are of concern, the inevitable tendency is to say—”Well, let’s fix the institutional setting, the machinery of government.” I think for many Canadians that is probably a turn-off—what is that? Why do I care? I think it would be unfortunate if we just focused on that.

It’s a concern for me, certainly, in the way that Mr. Johnston has framed some of his interim findings in the first report. When I say, the machinery of government is not enough, what I mean is that the machinery of government is part of a problem when it comes to intelligence. But there are other issues that I think we need to address. Generally, they’re often discussed in the context of the intelligence cycle—the various components of intelligence, from collection and analysis to reporting. It’s a continuous operation.

I think it’s important to look at the quality and style of reporting of our intelligence agencies. Is it really where we need it to be? Is our analytical capacity to take the raw intelligence that we collect, both ourselves and from our allies, and produce synthetic judgments about it really where we want it to be? Is it properly resourced? Are the ways in which we report intelligence as sophisticated as need be? There is this overarching problem we refer to as the problem of intelligence culture in Canada and the federal government. We have professional intelligence agencies that do good work in the intelligence space, but is their reporting really taken seriously and listened to?

The question around intelligence culture is, do Canadian governments really understand the significance of intelligence? Are they really prepared to rely on it as a primary source for informing them about wise decision-making? I think many people who have either studied the system for a long time or work within it will probably tell you that there is a real intelligence culture problem that we face. It’s something that distinguishes Canada, not to our credit, compared to our allies. In other words, it’s easy to say, and I think it’s true to say, that Britain, the United States, Australia, and even possibly New Zealand all take intelligence more seriously, more systematically, than we do in Canada. The machinery of government issues are important. But they’re not the entire waterfront. There are a lot of other things we need to think about if we’re really going to take on board the idea that it’s time to modernize and upgrade our intelligence capabilities.

What does the reaction to David Johnson’s report on foreign interference say about the current state of Canadian politics more generally?

I think the most obvious reflection is that, although there is often an expressed desire to try and move national security and intelligence issues into some kind of non-partisan space, I don’t know how realistic that ever is. Certainly, in the current environment, there is deep partisanship around how the government should handle national security issues. In fact, we saw that to a certain degree in the 2021 election. It’s rare that national security issues really rise to the forefront of people’s minds during election campaigns. But we’ll see what the future might hold in that regard.

Partisanship has been taken to extremes in some cases, in terms of allegations made about the government’s handling of foreign interference, including allegations that, somehow the government was turning a blind eye to intelligence about foreign interference because it was benefiting from that interference. There is absolutely nothing in Mr. Johnston’s report that suggests that was the case. He’s quite firm in denying it, which is, I think, useful for Canadians to hear.

There’s been a lot of reliance on media reporting about foreign interference based on selective leaks. It’s curious, in an age of a very diffuse social media environment, that people seem to be willing to take that media reporting on trust, when the reality is that only Global News and The Globe and Mail have had access to this leaked material. Neither of those organizations has decided to publish any of the leaked reports that they say they have viewed—whatever “viewed” means. Canadians are in a position where they have to trust how the media packages its understanding of those selected leaks. I don’t think that’s a good place for us to be.

In Mr. Johnston’s report, he is quite critical of some of the media reporting on the basis of leaked documents, which he himself, of course, has seen in their entirety. Again, what this all reveals is a deep lack of understanding about national security threats and the work of the intelligence community. I don’t blame Canadians for that. I don’t necessarily blame politicians for that. There is a long-standing problem in Canada around national security, transparency, and access to evidence. I hope the foreign interference furor will cause a change in approach to national security, and transparency. I hope there will be a willingness to provide Canadians with more evidence, through a declassification project, in terms of what the government actually knows about these things on the basis of its intelligence.

How can we address the vulnerabilities and weaknesses within our own systems that are partly responsible for allowing such interferences to take place?

The easiest one to talk about is the government. How can a government improve its own approach to national security? That’s one part of the puzzle. The second part, frankly, goes to Parliament and political parties, all of whom have a responsibility themselves to try and understand foreign interference, be knowledgeable about it, and protect themselves from it, whether on the campaign trail or between elections. Then there is a broader role for the Canadian public and diaspora communities that might be directly affected. Again, that broader role is, is to understand the nature of foreign interference, to understand how any threats that they might be concerned about can be communicated to the federal government for action.

An important consideration that I think has been missing from the response to these foreign interference allegations is: Canadians may be targeted by foreign interference, but has foreign interference really changed Canadians’ minds about how they would vote, and how they view various issues? I’ve seen very little evidence of that. It suggests to me that, in Canada, maybe we are losing faith in the ability of Canadians to make up their own minds—in a swirling information universe, to be sure—about their positions, to mark their own X’s on ballots.

We need to reinforce our basic confidence in ourselves as a free and democratic society, some of which has been unfortunately, completely unnecessarily eroded in the course of this controversy.

I encourage people not to listen to the criticisms of David Johnston’s report, but to read it, if they have an opportunity. It’s 56 pages, but it’s readable and you can navigate your way through it to the parts that you might be interested in. I think the idea proposed by Mr. Johnston of public hearings, is unprecedented and promising. It’s completely naive on my part, but a lot of these dug-in positions like, “We must have a judicial inquiry or nothing”, are fast becoming rear-view mirror positions. I think it’s time for people to give that some second thought and invest some faith, which may be well-placed or misplaced.

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