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Bill Blair blames CSIS director for not passing along memo warning of threats to MP

OTTAWA — Bill Blair is blaming Canadian Security Intelligence Service director David Vigneault for the fact that he didn't receive a memo warning about the alleged targeting of Conservative MP Michael Chong and his family by a Chinese diplomat.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 30, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Bill Blair is blaming Canadian Security Intelligence Service director David Vigneault for the fact that he didn't receive a memo warning about the alleged targeting of Conservative MP Michael Chong and his family by a Chinese diplomat.

"The director determined this was not information the minister needed to know," Blair said Thursday afternoon.

The former public safety minister made the comments at a meeting of a parliamentary committee that is investigating allegations that members of Parliament were targeted by foreign interference. 

Blair's appearance follows the release of watchdog David Johnston's first report, which found there were serious issues with the way the government handles confidential information.

The former governor general's report concluded that CSIS was aware of indications Chinese officials were contemplating action directed at Canadian MPs, but did not identify negligence at the highest political levels.

Johnston concluded that intelligence about Chinese officials seeking information on Conservative MP Michael Chong didn't reach the prime minister, the public safety minister or Chong himself until after it was leaked and reported by media.

The prime minister's national security adviser, Jody Thomas, told MPs at the committee meeting that in 2021, the memo was sent to deputy ministers of Public Safety, Global Affairs and National Defence. 

But it effectively went into a "black hole" and wasn't shared with the appropriate people, she said.

Thomas was the deputy minister of National Defence at the time and was one of the three to receive the memo. 

She said she didn't see it because she was on leave when it was delivered, and the memo would have been destroyed after a certain amount of time for security reasons.

The memo didn't specifically mention Chong, but Johnston's report said there was an additional note sent to Blair and his deputy minister indicating there was intelligence the People's Republic of China intended to target Chong and another, unnamed MP.

The report also said CSIS intended to provide Chong and the other MP with a briefing. Chong said he did receive a briefing but it did not include any details about a threat to his family.

Thomas said the memo about Chong was sent to the Privy Council Office in July 2021 and was provided to her predecessor David Morrison, who is currently the deputy minister of foreign affairs, that August. 

But she wouldn't say why it wasn't then shared with the prime minister, Chong or other relevant people at the time. 

"I'm not going to account for what's happened with my predecessor," she told the committee.  

Johnston's report confirmed that CSIS also sent information about the targeting of Chong to the public safety minister and his chief of staff via a top-secret email platform, but they never received it. The public service told Johnston that they don't have access to the right system. 

Thomas said it should have been the responsibility of the security apparatus to ensure the information was provided, arguing that his lack of access to the email system was not the primary reason Blair didn't see it.

"Minister Blair would have been given a reading package," she said.  

Blair, who was public safety minister at the time, said Thursday afternoon that he, too, first learned about threats against Chong in the media — and that if he had been briefed about threats against an MP, he would have taken action.

"I didn't have a password to an email account," he told reporters following his appearance. "That's not exactly how this works."

He told MPs on the committee there is no email account where top-secret information is shared with people, but there is a top-secret terminal, and he did not have access to one in his offices. 

"If (CSIS) determined that information is not required to be shared with us, and I have no knowledge of that, I would not have the opportunity to act on it," he said, adding that questions about why the information wasn't shared with him should be put to Vigneault.

He said that when CSIS did want to share information with him, he was brought to a secure facility and briefed with printed materials.

"I am not suggesting that CSIS purposely withheld information. They make a determination. They make a determination on the credibility and the seriousness of the intelligence that they’ve gathered."

Thomas said steps have been taken to ensure better information flow since her arrival to the national security adviser position in 2022, and more is now being done to ensure officials are aware of how to consume intelligence. 

The Liberal government recently issued a directive that any threats against members of Parliament, their families or their staff must be elevated to the highest political levels, even if CSIS does not deem the threat to be serious or legitimate. 

The Liberal government expelled Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei in May, accusing him of being involved in a plot to intimidate Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong. 

Chong's alleged targeting had come after he successfully sponsored a motion in the House of Commons labelling Beijing's treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China a genocide.

"We will not tolerate any form of foreign interference in our internal affairs," Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly wrote in a statement at the time, declaring the Toronto-based diplomat as "persona non grata."

In response, China's embassy expelled Canada's consul in Shanghai and issued a statement accusing Canada of breaching international law and acting based on anti-Chinese sentiment. It said the move has "sabotaged" relations between China and Canada, according to an official English translation provided by the embassy, and promised unspecified retaliatory measures.

Thomas told MPs during her committee appearance that proxies of foreign diplomats in Canada continue to be "working contrary to the interests of the diaspora community." 

She hesitated to put a number on how many people are involved or speak further about what their activities entail, citing national security considerations. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2023.

— With files from Dylan Robertson.

David Fraser, The Canadian Press