The leaders of the two largest federal opposition parties are rejecting Justin Trudeau’s invitation to receive security clearances in order to review the confidential annex of special rapporteur David Johnston’s report, prompting the prime minister to accuse them of hiding behind “a veil of ignorance.”
On Tuesday, while pointing to the real threat that foreign election interference poses and the need to address some serious intelligence gaps, Johnston recommended against a public inquiry into the federal government’s handling of the issue. He instead plans to conduct more forward-looking public hearings.
In making this assessment, he compiled a “confidential annex” that addressed the major interference allegations and relevant intelligence documents that led Johnston to this conclusion.
This special addendum was provided to the prime minister, with the recommendation that it be shared with opposition party leaders, provided they receive the needed top secret security clearance required to review it.
Trudeau said Tuesday that he’d written to his opposition counterparts to start the process of being cleared so they can see the same full picture that he has, but that offer has quickly been rebuffed, with Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet refusing to pursue reading the secret information.
“It’s a trap,” Blanchet said Wednesday, speaking to reporters in Ottawa.
While Blanchet said he isn’t taking Johnston’s word for anything, he still won’t pursue reading the same information himself because he thinks Trudeau is trying to use the offer to essentially silence the opposition party leaders on the issue, because they would be unable to speak publicly about what they learned by gaining access to the classified material.
“The trap is to say: ‘If you want to see it all, you cannot say anything, or do anything with that,'” Blanchet said. “And then they [the Liberals] will tell everybody that ‘everything is fixed’ because the leaders of the opposition parties have seen something, which they can do nothing about.”
Blanchet, who said Johnston’s report minimizes the seriousness of the issue of foreign interference and makes it appear as if he’s trying to protect the governing Liberals’ secrecy, is now calling for some degree of documentation to be declassified.
“Somebody has to make wise and careful decisions about which documents can be made public or not. It cannot be him [Johnston]. It cannot be the prime minister’s office either. It has to be somebody independent, with a mandate from the Parliament, this is the only way to do this. Some of these documents may be revealed, some cannot,” Blanchet said.
Speaking to reporters in Toronto, Poilievre confirmed that he would not take part in any top-secret briefing process, after saying Tuesday that he “will not be silenced.”
He pointed to the leaks that have generated much of the reporting on attempts to meddle in the 2019 and 2021 campaigns as an indication that there are members of Canada’s intelligence community that think the public should know more. In his report, Johnston examined several cases of leaked intelligence reported on by The Globe and Mail and Global News, concluding that in certain cases intelligence or materials were “misconstrued in some media reports” as they were lacking the context of the bigger picture, as provided in his annex.
Poilievre also committed Wednesday to calling a public inquiry if the Conservatives form the next government. He said that process would be led by a judge with national security experience and subpoena powers to compel “any and all documents from the government, and decide based on the facts and based on our national interest, what share of that should be public.”
Johnston has recommended that his findings should be referred to and reviewed by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the National Security and Intelligence Review Committee (NSIRA), and both oversight bodies should report publicly if they disagree.
Both Blanchet and Poilievre have indicated that they won’t impede on their MPs who sit on NSICOP, from taking part in that top-secret panel’s review.
‘A VEIL OF IGNORANCE’
In his report, Johnston said that while he knows that in normal political circumstances an opposition party leader may not want to subject themselves to the constraints of the Security of Information Act, “this matter is too important for anyone aspiring to lead the country to intentionally maintain a veil of ignorance on these matters.”
He said that while political parties may disagree, and want to continue debating the issue of foreign interference, they should do so “from a common understanding of the true facts, not as speculated or hypothesized from media reports based on leaks of partial information.”
“These oversight reviews should increase trust and ensure Parliament has a sounder basis for the important debates it will have on foreign interference and steps to detect, deter and counter it,” Johnston said.
Echoing this view, on Wednesday Trudeau borrowed some of Johnston’s language, panning Poilievre specifically, saying that he is “choosing to sit behind a veil of ignorance.”
“He doesn’t want the facts to get in the way of a good political argument, or a personal attack. I think Canadians have to ask themselves the question: is that a serious leader? Is that a serious way to handle something as important as foreign countries trying to mess with our democracy, with our businesses, with our diaspora communities,” Trudeau said. “On an issue like this, we have to be grounded in facts. That’s what this government is doing, that’s what David Johnston has done.”
The only opposition party leader that has expressed interest in taking up Trudeau’s offer to receive the clearance needed to view the entirety of Johnston’s findings is NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
He continues to make a case for some form of public inquiry, while acknowledging that it’s not possible for some of the most salient pieces of information that may reassure Canadians to be shared.
“We believe that Mr. Johnston’s work should continue. He’s uncovered some important findings, and those are those important things for Canadians to know about, but I remain resolute that we do need a public inquiry,” Singh said on CTV’s Power Play on Tuesday.
The NDP leader plans to sit down with Trudeau to let him know he plans to use “all tools” he has to continue to push for an inquiry.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said despite not being contacted to take part in Johnston’s review so far, she wants to review the confidential information and is fine with the security limitations.
“Unlike other opposition parties, the Greens have written the Rt Hon David Johnston to request access to security-protected documents and background,” said the party in a statement on Wednesday.
“In our view, having the chance to review background and highly confidential information is an important aspect of our democratic process,” said May in the statement. “If, after reviewing that information, we still believe a public inquiry is required, which I expect we will, then having full knowledge and greater context, is not a barrier to calling for a full public inquiry. Unlike Mr. Poilievre, we think being fully informed is a strength.”
A last-minute meeting of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee that has been studying the issue of foreign election interference, has been called for Thursday, with MPs wanting to discuss Johnston’s report.