OTTAWA–The Canadian government is planning a larger push to protect the integrity of the 2019 federal election against foreign meddling, the Star has learned.
Ottawa is expected within weeks to announce a broader effort by federal agencies and departments to safeguard the 2019 vote, sources have confirmed. The total number of departments is not yet known but it is described, in Ottawa terms, as a “whole of government” effort.
Both the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) are expected to have a role, but non-security agencies like Global Affairs Canada and the Privy Council Office are also involved.
The initiative was described to the Star by a number of officials from different agencies, who requested anonymity because the government’s planning is not yet complete. A spokesperson for Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould told the Star that her ministry was not prepared to comment. “I can only say we continue to work on new measures to protect against foreign interference as we approach the 2019 election,” wrote Amy Butcher in an email.
One of the key questions officials are grappling with is how exactly Canadians would be informed about any attempt — either by influencing Canadians’ debates through disinformation campaigns, or by a more direct efforts — to meddle with the election.
Call it the “James Comey question,” after the former FBI director who reopened an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails in the middle of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
It could also be called the “Barack Obama question,” since it’s exactly the same issue Obama’s administration dealt with in 2016 according to David Sanger, a New York Times reporter whose recent book, The Perfect Weapon, details Russia’s campaign to influence the U.S. presidential election and the Obama administration’s internal debates.
“(Obama argued) he would be accused of trying to swing the election in Hilary (Clinton’s) favour by arguing the Russians were coming in Trump’s favour,” Sanger told the Star.
“There’s not an easy answer (to that) but there’s an answer. The naming and shaming of cyber actors, once you’ve got reasonable confidence in the attribution, (becomes) routine … Once you’ve started that process, long before the election begins, the populace becomes accustomed to it. And you’re just calling balls and strikes, to use a very American metaphor,” he said.
“The hard thing would be not doing that, and then start doing it during the election.”
Obama’s decision was to largely keep quiet, except for a few short statements about Russia’s campaign. It doesn’t appear that the Canadian government, if it detects a foreign influence campaign, will do the same.
Melanie Wise, a spokesperson with Elections Canada, said the arm’s-length agency has been working with partners — including some in the security community — about how the Canadian public will be informed if a foreign agent or government is trying to swing the election.
“It’s a big question,” Wise said. “We’re meeting, actively, regularly, to discuss roles and responsibilities under various scenarios and we’re developing appropriate communications plans.”
Officials including Wise stressed that Elections Canada is independent of government. But Wise said the agency has been meeting with the commissioner of Canada Elections, who investigates and enforces elections law, CSE, CSIS, the RCMP, Public Safety Canada, and the Office of the National Security Advisor on elections integrity matters.
Michael Pal, a professor with the University of Ottawa’s faulty of law, said that more transparency around how the federal government would deal with these issues would be a positive.
“One of the things I’d like to see is a bit more public disclosure of what the protocols would be in the case of foreign interference … which the U.S. has done,” Pal said.
“They deemed elections critical infrastructure, but they also made public what would happen — Homeland Security contacts the secretary of state, then we announce it under these factors and conditions — because it can get very partisan very quickly, especially if the foreign interference is seen to help or hurt one party.
“I would like to see a commitment to setting out those standards in public,” Pal said. “I think it’s better for building trust in the Canadian public, if everybody knows the rules in advance.”
Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier