Special rapporteur David Johnston said he reviewed the intelligence behind this allegation and came to conclude there was no truth to it
Johnston, who was appointed to the role by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in March, delivered the first of two reports Tuesday. In it he recommended against a public inquiry and weighed in on intelligence issues and the allegations that have been made public so far.
One of the most shocking allegations was reported in March by Global News, citing unnamed security sources. The report suggested Toronto Liberal MP Han Dong had encouraged a People’s Republic of China (PRC) official to keep Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in custody longer.
Johnston said he reviewed the intelligence behind the allegation and concluded there was no truth to it.
“The allegation is false. Mr. Dong discussed the “two Michaels” with a PRC official, but did not suggest to the official that the PRC extend their detention.”
Other media reports have suggested China interfered in Dong’s nomination as the Liberal candidate. Johnston said there were irregularities and suspicions the Chinese consulate was involved, but he also said there was no recommendation to drop Dong as a candidate.
“This was not an unreasonable conclusion based on the intelligence available to the prime minister at the time,” Johnston concluded.
In an afternoon press conference, Trudeau said it’s clear the allegations against Dong were false, and he looks forward to talking to him about his future plans.
Dong resigned from the Liberal caucus to sit as an independent when the Global story aired. He also launched a lawsuit against the broadcaster.
Johnston said he found limited evidence to support another allegation, that 11 federal candidates had received $250,000 funnelled through community organizations during the 2019 federal election.
“Limited intelligence” supports the notion that the Chinese government intended for funds to reach seven Liberal and four Conservative candidates, Johnston’s report said, but there is no intelligence suggesting that any of them received the money.
Other reports had indicated that a network of candidates and operatives in the Greater Toronto Area were willing participants in the Chinese Community Party’s goals.
But Johnston found “no basis” to conclude that candidates were working in concert or understood the intentions of apparent Chinese government proxies who were communicating with them.
“No recommendation about a network of candidates was made as no network was known to exist,” the report said.
Johnston said there was a memo in 2017 warning the prime minister that Chinese agents were “assisting Canadian candidates running for political offices.” He said that direct quote didn’t appear in any of the drafts of that memo and while something similar appeared in an early draft it was removed before a final version was sent to the prime minister.
He also said the warning the prime minister ultimately received advised him against naming China directly.
“This memorandum warns him that public efforts to raise awareness should remain general and not single out specific countries because of diplomatic sensitivities,” Johnston wrote. “This is before the ‘two Michaels’ and the deterioration in Canada-PRC relations.”
Johnston said even the most central allegation of the controversy — that China wanted to see a Liberal minority government re-elected — is based on limited intelligence.
“There was an unconfirmed indication that a very small number of PRC diplomats expressed a preference for the (Liberal Party of Canada) to the Conservative Party of Canada in the 2021 election. Other members of diplomatic staff have had a variety of opinions and preferences,” he wrote. “There was no indication that the PRC had a plan to orchestrate a Liberal minority government in 2021 or were “determined” that the Conservatives not win.”
Johnston addressed the most recent allegations that Chinese diplomats had targeted Conservative MP Michael Chong’s family. He said he found intelligence pointing to that and found it was not relayed to ministers, part of a much broader problem.
“It is certainly the most prominent, but not the only, example of poor information flow and processing between agencies, the public service and ministers.”
Johnston’s report doesn’t provide details on how he concluded what he did about the allegations, but he said he has drafted a confidential annex, which can be viewed by anyone with a top secret clearance, which he said should include the opposition leaders.
Trudeau said he hopes all of the opposition leaders take the opportunity to review the classified information.
“I don’t think Canadians would want or expect any of them to choose ignorance, when they can choose to have the facts laid out for them,” he said. “There are always going to be plenty of things to criticize the government on, to challenge us to do better. But let us be grounded in an understanding of the true facts.”
Johnston said the intelligence leaks fuelling many media stories need to be stopped, because they risk damaging public trust.
“It is a matter of urgency that all efforts be made to identify and hold the leaker(s) responsible. Malice cannot be ruled out.”
Johnston painted a picture of a deeply troubling system for sharing intelligence information that often leaves people in the dark.
“The current arrangements can lead to situations where information that should be brought to the attention of a minister or the prime minister does not reach them because it can be lost in the sea of material that floats through the government,” he said. “We have seen intelligence that should have at least made it to the ministerial level that the relevant minister did not see.”
The article was first published by The National Post.
The cover photo by SEAN KILPATRICK /The Canadian Press.
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