I have been meaning for some time to do a deeper dive into the reporting by Global News on allegations of Chinese state election interference. This deeper dive would parallel an analysis I published earlier in this substack (in three parts) on reporting by the rival Globe and Mail.
This is a longish piece with a blow-by-blow summary of the individual news report. Feel free to cut to the chase and read the overview piece at the end, if you wish.
by WESLEY WARK
Revelations in Global News reporting on Chinese election interference have run neck-and-neck with the reporting of the Globe and Mail. Few commentators have pointed out this competitive dynamic or delved into its significance. These two media outlets are the only ones to have received classified information from leakers within the national security community, so presumably their sources chose them with deliberation.
While the Globe and Mail may carry more clout in political Ottawa; Global News has a different kind of bully pulpit as it can combine print journalism with TV coverage, where it commands a large audience.
Sam Cooper, the Global News’ lead investigative reporter on Chinese state election interference was formerly with the National Post and its regional papers in B.C., where one of his specialties was reporting on organized crime and money laundering, including links to Chinese individuals and organizations. He authored a book in 2021 called Wilful Blindness, which discussed Chinese money laundering through real estate deals and casino plays. The book occasioned a heated and lengthy response in a review in Georgia Straight by Ng Weng Hoong, a Chinese-Canadian journalist, who described the book as “remarkable for its astonishing number of sweeping statements that are unsubstantiated, distorted, exaggerated, or downright false.” Mr. Ng worried that books such as this would “sow disinformation and stoke fear”.
Not all reviews are good publicity.
Mr. Cooper, who joined Global News and moved to Ottawa in 2018, has brought his expose-style journalism to the story of Chinese election interference in Canada. He was first out of the gate with a story published on November 7, 2022, a few days after a House of Commons committee began a study of the same issue.
All of Mr. Cooper’s relevant news stories, along with embedded TV spots, can be found on the Global website.
So here goes:
November 7, 2022
The November 7 story had some sensational elements and set its sights squarely on the Trudeau government. Cooper told readers that “sources” provided information to Global News about a series of briefings provided to the PM and Ministers starting in January 2022 regarding Chinese election interference in the 2019 election. (One wonders what the cause of the delay in these intelligence warnings might have been or whether they were new warnings?)
Cooper came up with what I presume is his description of this Chinese interference, calling it a “vast campaign” which allegedly involved funding through a “clandestine network” of at least 11 federal candidates in the 2019 election. His sources indicated that the briefings to Cabinet did not identify the 2019 candidates affected. But Cooper was told by his anonymous informants that some $250,000 in funding was “transferred” from the hands of the Chinese consulate in Toronto through proxies, including an unnamed Ontario provincial MPP and a Federal election candidate staffer, to the “network” of 11 federal election candidates and “numerous Beijing operatives who worked as their campaign staffers.” Behind all this was the hand of the Chinese “United Front Work Department (UFWD)” It was a long piece but that was the essence. There was no suggestion that Cooper was made directly privy to any classified documentation to support the allegations from his sources. It is not clear how he corroborated the information.
Key aspects of this story were undercut by subsequent testimony by the National Security and Intelligence Adviser, Jody Thomas, who told the House Committee on Procedures and House Affairs (PROC) that “the connection that was being made between 11 candidates and $250,000 was inaccurate.” [March 1, 2023] This was a reaffirmation of testimony that Thomas had given to the National Defence Committee on December 8, 2022. In response to a question, Ms. Thomas stated:
“I brief the Prime Minister on intelligence constantly, and certainly on foreign interference. As I said, I was not in this job, and I was not a part of the panel of five in the election oversight committee for the 2019 election or the 2021 election. The news stories that you have read about interference are just that, news stories. We have not seen it…. I’ll just say it. We have not seen money going to 11 candidates, period.”
By way of contrast, the Globe and Mail’s sources indicated that Prime Minister Trudeau was briefed in the Fall of 2022 about election interference in the 2019 election and was told at the time that there was no evidence of any covert funding being channelled to the election candidates, or that any were compromised by Chinese interference, or that China’s efforts had materially aided any of the candidates, or even that the candidates in question knew of the Chinese efforts. This Globe and Mail story of December 21, 2022, represented the Globe’s first real foray into the election interference controversy.
So, we have sources telling selected journalists quite different stories. That, in itself, raises questions about the viability of media reporting based on anonymous leaks.
November 16, 2022
Next up from Mr. Cooper was a story published on November 16, which repeated elements of the November 7 story, about funding going to federal election candidates in 2019 and this time added the name of a Chinese-Canadian businessman, Wei Chengyi, as a key figure in the alleged election money transfer scheme. Cooper cited “sources aware of investigations” or “CSIS probes” for this claim. Again, there is no indication of Mr. Cooper having access to any documentation to support what his leakers were telling him.
Mr. Cooper did suggest in the November 16 article that the leaks indicated “escalating tensions between a government that seems reluctant to rankle Canada’s second-largest trading partner, and a security establishment seeking tighter rules against foreign interference.” How he came to this editorializing and politically inflected conclusion is not clear; nor is it directly supported by any evidence he presents in his article.
December 13, 2022
Cooper continued to repeat his November 7 story about briefings to the PM a month later but with a surprising and undermining twist. In a December 13, 2022 news story, that was mostly focused on a (completely) redacted PCO intelligence assessment from February 2020, provided to the Procedures and House Affairs Committee of the House of Commons (PROC), he now stated that “intelligence sources” told Global News that while the Chinese consulate had made a clandestine transfer of $ 250,000 it went to a Toronto-based network “and there is no evidence showing that China directly earmarked money for the 2019 federal contest.”
The narrative was shifting in confusing ways.
December 21, 2022
Mr. Cooper regrouped for his next story, published on December 21, 2022 (the same day as the first major Globe and Mail account). For the very first time, Mr. Cooper indicates that he has had access to an actual intelligence document. He tells his readers that he “reviewed” an unredacted copy of the February 21, 2020, PCO Intelligence Assessment Secretariat report mentioned in his previous report. All that has been revealed in public about that report, from a PCO IAS series called “Daily Foreign Intelligence Briefs” (FIBs—unfortunate abbreviation), is the overall title of a section of the report, “China/Canada: Subtle but Effective Interference Networks,” and a sub-heading: “CA Assessment: Investigations into activities linked to the Canadian federal election in 2019, reveal an active foreign interference network.”
The description that Sam Cooper now gave of the clandestine Chinese state “interference network” was more diffuse. The effort was now described as involving “complex, obscure mechanisms…” There were still allegations of money operations, but they were now described as “indirect.” Yet confusingly, Cooper continued to reference his original story from November 7, about direct money flows to 11 candidates in the 2019 federal election.
However, the thrust of his revised picture of the intent of the Chinese interference operation now pointed towards an intelligence-gathering mission by which “staff of targeted politicians provide advice on China-related issues” to the Chinese consulate in Toronto. There was no word of any similar network feeding into the much larger Chinese embassy in Ottawa.
In another part of the same article, Sam Cooper suggests that the PCO document alleges that Beijing’s objective was to “influence government officials into taking specific stances on China’s issues of interest.”
Again, Mr. Cooper adds his spin by writing that, “details from the 2020 PCO brief raise questions about what steps in almost three years the Liberal government might have taken to address the alleged interference campaign and the indirect cash flows that intelligence sources say supported it.”
February 8, 2023
Things then went quiet for a while on the Chinese interference story. It popped up again only in February 2023. Mr. Cooper published his next story on February 8, but this time concerning a much earlier, June 2017, draft document prepared for the Prime Minister. The draft, “reviewed” by Global News, was designed to warn the PM and PMO officials of a Chinese “strategy of engagement to influence Canadian officials in ways that can compromise the security of Canada and the integrity of Canadian officials.”
Cooper takes this “draft” and reaches out into the ether to again suggest that it, “raises questions about how seriously the PMO took the allegations and what steps Ottawa could have taken…” The draft document, on its own, of course, raises no such questions. But the Cooper reporting from the beginning intended to infer that the Trudeau Government had done nothing in response to warnings of Chinese interference. In that regard, he was being used as an amplifier by his anonymous sources.
Sam Cooper also suggested that “many in the intelligence community believe their warnings on China’s interference campaigns have gone unheeded.” He then cites one anonymous “official” who allegedly told Cooper that, “the floodgates have been opened in the last five years. There has been ample evidence placed in front of the Liberal Party of Canada, and they have done essentially nothing.”
February 25, 2023
Nine days later, on February 17, 2023, the Globe and Mail came out with their big reveal about an alleged Chinese strategy to interfere in the 2021 federal election based on a leaked CSIS report of December 20, 2021.
Cooper responded one week later with a competing reveal, which surfaced an allegation that a Liberal candidate in the 2019 election, Han Dong, now a sitting MP who was re-elected for a second term in 2021, was a “witting affiliate in China’s election interference networks.” Sources who spoke to Cooper told him, according to the journalist’s account, that CSIS had been investigating Dong for a few months before the 2019 election campaign, and had intervened with PMO to urge it to drop Dong’s nomination for the Don Valley North riding in Toronto. Dong was also considered guilty by association for his alleged “close contact” with Michael Chan. Here Global’s reporting crossed paths with that of the Globe and Mail, who had previously published a story about Mr. Chan’s alleged involvement in Chinese state interference attempts.
Cooper stated that “Global News has not confirmed the CSIS allegations in this story.” That is a pretty astounding statement to make. He did have access to the same CSIS report of December 20, 2021, that fueled the Globe and Mail story of election interference but needed a fresh angle.
Despite the lack of confirmation about the Dong allegation, Cooper was happy to print it. He was also prepared to air conspiratorial suggestions allegedly from “one GTA Liberal politician,” (unnamed of course, but a disgruntled soul) that the pair of Dong and Chan were “kingmakers of the party, standing behind the scenes and moving their pawns. So if they can produce the money, the party is putty in their hands.”
Cooper also reported on alleged foreign interference irregularities in Dong’s nomination process, including reliance on the support of Chinese international students with fake addresses and on “two busloads” of Chinese Canadian seniors.
February 27, 2023
A follow-up story two days later repeated the account of a last-minute security briefing to PMO regarding Han Dong’s nomination process in Toronto before the 2019 federal election. Whether the additional material in this story from his sources amounted, in Mr. Cooper’s eyes, to a confirmation of the CSIS allegations was not made clear. He did not repeat the statement from February 25 that the CSIS allegations were not confirmed. He did add a statement based on three sources who said, according to Cooper, that they believe a “concern of conflict is raised that the Liberal Party of Canada has been supported by Chinese Communist election interference in 2019 and 2021.”
March 8, 2023
Heading into March, the next election interference story written by Sam Cooper contained probably the most important leaked material he had yet received, material that was provided to him uniquely from sources, involving two records. One was a PCO report from January 2022; the other was an unredacted copy of the report produced by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians on foreign interference in 2019.
While Mr. Cooper had mentioned the January 2022 PCO report in his February 27 story, he now indicated that it had been “reviewed” by Global News. The highlight of the report, according to Cooper, was a passage quoted from the report that stated “A large clandestine transfer of funds earmarked for the federal election from the PRC [People’s Republic of China] Consulate in Toronto was transferred to an elected provincial government official via a staff member of a 2019 federal candidate.” This account looped back to and appeared to confirm Cooper’s first election interference story of November 7, 2022. But it stopped short of repeating the claim that the money had gone to any federal election candidates in 2019. “Earmarked” was a more ambiguous term, perhaps reflecting uncertainties and gaps in intelligence. This time, though, Mr. Cooper’s story lacked the disclaimer from his December 13, 2022 story, that “there is no evidence showing that China directly earmarked money for the 2019 federal election contest.”
Which of Mr. Cooper’s accounts (December 13, 2022, or March 13, 2023) we are meant to believe in is unclear.
The story was backstopped by reference to the unredacted copy of the 2019 NSICOP report which referred more generically to a practice whereby “foreign states clandestinely direct contributions and support for the campaigns and political parties of preferred candidates.”
Cooper notes that the NSICOP report did not examine specific interference activities directed at the 2019 election, but does not explain the reason, which was that the NSICOP report was finalized before the 2019 election (it was submitted to the PM on August 30, 2019).
March 10, 2023
Mr. Cooper again returned to the scene of allegations about election interference in 2019 with an add-on to his previous story about election interference money being transferred by the Chinese consulate in Toronto to a provincial MPP. This time, based on his “sources” he named the Ontario MPP as Vincent Ke, a Conservative MPP first elected in 2018 who is described as a “financial intermediary.” Mr. Cooper’s sources told him that Mr. Ke received around $50,000, via an aide to a federal candidate running for the 2019 contest (aide and candidate unnamed). His documentary source, the PCO report of January 2022, did not mention Mr. Ke by name, so for this allegation, Cooper was relying solely on, it would appear, what his sources told him about Mr. Ke’s involvement in clandestine funding. They “filled in gaps,” as Mr. Cooper stated.
But in a later passage in the article, Mr. Cooper baldly states that “Global News could not independently confirm allegations regarding the financial transfers allegedly handled by Wei (see the story of November 16, 2022) and Ke. Moreover, its sources did not provide Global with any further details about how—if at all—the alleged recipients used the funds.
No independent confirmation; no knowledge about any use of the funds in question. One has to wonder, then, at the evidentiary foundation for this story. A larger puzzle is why would Beijing fund a Conservative MPP if the intent was to try to influence a federal election campaign in favour of the Liberals.
March 22, 2023
Having outed Mr. Ke and having previously alleged that federal MP Han Dong was a “witting affiliate” in Chinese election interference networks (story of February 25), Mr. Cooper returned to the charge against Han Dong and turned up the heat. This time he made the stunning accusation that the Liberal MP privately advised a senior Chinese diplomat in February 2021 that Beijing should delay freeing hostage diplomacy victims Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor because the Conservative party would allegedly benefit (how that would be so is a head-shaker). The story was based on “two separate national security sources.”
Cooper also reported that his sources told him that Dong recommended that “Beijing show some progress in the Kovrig and Spavor cases.” Cooper’s sources speculated as to whether Mr. Dong’s advice about “showing progress’ was influential in the Chinese government’s decision to begin court proceedings against the two Michaels in mid-March 2021. This seems a real stretch to me, even assuming the substance of the advice was as alleged and there was some way to square a call for the delay with a call for progress.
In response, Han Dong told Global News that in the conversation with the Chinese consul-general, he had “raised the status of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig and called for their immediate release.”
In an interesting display of rivalry between the two main media outlets reporting on Chinese election interference, the Globe and Mail carried a story the following day, March 23, indicating that a source—a senior government official –informed the paper that the Trudeau government had recently reviewed the CSIS transcript of the Dong call and had determined that it contained no actionable evidence and that, to quote the Globe story, “conclusions could not be drawn that Mr. Dong asked Beijing to keep two Canadians in prison for political reasons.”
The Globe and Mail news story further revealed that it had become aware, in February of 2023, from its sources, of the 2021 phone conversation between Dong and the Chinese official, had asked Dong about it, and had also questioned the PMO about the intercepted conversation in early March. The paper had not published the allegations because, in the words of reporters Bob Fife and Steve Chase, “it was unable to obtain transcripts or a tape recording to authenticate what transpired” during the conversation. This statement may also suggest some hidden doubt on the part of the Globe reporters about the source information regarding the Dong allegations.
The March 22 story by Mr. Cooper is, at the time of writing, the last piece of Chinese election interference reportage he has produced based on leaked information. He has since written articles summarising public testimony before Parliamentary committees.
In the wake of the published allegations about Liberal MP Han Dong and Conservative MP Vincent Ke, both individuals left their party caucuses to sit as independent members in the federal and provincial legislatures, respectively.
Both Dong and Ke have filed libel suits against Mr. Cooper and Global News.
What can we conclude about the Chinese election interference stories reported by Sam Cooper?
The most noteworthy feature, to me, is that Mr. Cooper’s reporting is heavily reliant on anonymous sources. His access to actual classified records which he states he has “viewed” or “reviewed” is very limited (see the list below). The documentary evidence he has seen is not current. The most recent report he cites as having been viewed dates from January 2022. Most of his reporting concerns allegations linked to the 2019 federal election.
In addition, the records Mr. Cooper says he has reviewed are mostly distinct from those “viewed” by the Globe and Mail. The only record shared by anonymous sources with both Global News and the Globe and Mail is a CSIS report of December 20, 2021. The Globe and Mail referenced this report in their major story of February 17, 2023. Mr. Cooper made less use of this report and only cited it a week after the Globe and Mail.
Mr. Cooper, on the other hand, appears to have been provided with unique access to Privy Council office records, including two IAS reports on foreign election interference, from January 2022 and February 2020. These records are cited in several of Mr. Cooper’s stories and provide their documentary basis.
In addition, Mr. Cooper also has had access to an unredacted copy of a classified report provided to the Prime Minister by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians in August 2019. To my knowledge, this is the first time that a classified NSICOP report has been leaked, since the establishment of the committee in 2017.
So, very limited access, but to a different range of records compared to the Globe and Mail.
A second key feature of Mr. Cooper’s reporting is that he was prepared to make serious allegations about the complicity of two Chinese-Canada politicians in Chinese state election interference solely based on information told to him by his anonymous sources, where he had no corroborating evidence from classified documents. In the case of his allegations about the Liberal MP Han Dong, his story of February 25, 2023, states that “Global News has not confirmed the CSIS allegations in this story.” A similar statement appears in the story of March 10, 2023, reporting allegations against Ontario Conservative MPP, Vincent Ke, whereby Global News “could not independently confirm” the allegations.
Questioning by Conservative MPs on the Procedures and House Affairs committee demonstrates their willingness to rely on Mr. Cooper’s reporting, despite its problematic evidentiary basis. See the session on April 14 with Katie Telford as the witness.
A third element of Mr. Cooper’s news accounts of Chinese foreign interference involves the ways that his allegations about election interference contain inconsistencies and contradictions, especially around the question of whether there was intelligence pointing to actual transfers of money to federal election candidates. His initial news stories in November 2022, about the 2019 election, claimed that funding from Chinese state sources had flowed directly to federal candidates. Later stories in December shifted the ground to a description of “complex, obscure mechanisms” supporting foreign interference and describe “indirect” money flows.
Throughout his reporting, Mr. Cooper willingly amplifies claims made by his anonymous sources regarding failures by the Trudeau government to respond to Chinese foreign interference efforts. Nowhere does he describe the various measures taken by the government to respond to election interference since 2015. There is a very obvious political inflection to his reporting.
Finally, Mr. Cooper’s stories do not make any distinction between different forms and objectives of foreign interference. Election interference, intelligence gathering, and broader efforts to influence politicians’ views toward a pro-Beijing perspective are all lumped together.
The limitations and inadequacies of media reporting on Chinese election interference, exemplified by Global News reporting, may be taken by some as proof of the need for a public inquiry (a variant on the old saw about where there is smoke there is fire).
Alternatively, they beg the question of whether reporting based largely on anonymous sources, with a distinct political agenda, often lacking corroboration through documentary records, is a fit and proper basis for going through the exercise of a public inquiry.
Nor can such reporting help establish the central issues which a public inquiry should address.
Global News reporting may amplify the concerns of some set of anonymous individuals within the national security community that the government has failed to act. But is this essentially political critique the proper basis for a central question to be posed to a public inquiry? I don’t think so.
There are a host of other issues that might feature in a public inquiry, including the capacity of the national security system to collect intelligence on foreign interference threats; the ability of intelligence assessments to properly capture the nature of the threat; the upwards transmission of intelligence reporting to the heads of our national security agencies; the flow of intelligence briefs to Cabinet and the Prime Minister; the adequacy of government responses; policy incoherence; legislative weaknesses and gaps. Incidentally, I expect all of these issues will be dealt with by the two independent review bodies, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians.
But the real purpose of a public inquiry would be to increase public understanding of foreign interference threats in ways that selective media reporting has failed to do and that other review mechanisms cannot do.
Advocates of a public inquiry, including possibly the special rapporteur, will have to be able to clearly explain how a public inquiry is the best means to achieve the (sustained) enhancement of public understanding. I remain a skeptic.
Classified government records cited as “viewed” or “reviewed” by Sam Cooper
(in chronological order from the most recent records):
PCO Intelligence Assessment Secretariat, Special Report, January 2022 (cited on February 25, February 27, March 8, and March 10, 2023, news stories)
CSIS Report, December 20, 2021 (cited on February 25, 2023 news story) [*this CSIS document provided the material for the Globe and Mail’s major story published on February 17, 2023]
PCO Intelligence Assessment Secretariat, Foreign Intelligence Brief, “PRC Foreign Interference: 2019 Elections; “subtitled “China/Canada: Subtle but Effective Interference Networks in the Greater Toronto Area,” February 2020 (cited on December 21, 2022, and March 10, 2023, news stories)
National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, August 2019 report on foreign interference, unredacted version (cited on March 8, 2023, a news story)
Memorandum for the Prime Minister, (draft), sub-heading “Chinese Efforts to Influence Canadian Politicians,” June 2017, issued from the office of the National Security and Intelligence Advisor, unsigned and unstamped (cited on February 8, and March 10, 2023, news stories)
(Wesley Wark is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Balsillie School of International Affairs, and the emeritus professor at the University of Toronto. You can read more of his work through this website. )
This article was first published by Wesley Wark’s National Security and Intelligence Newsletter.
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