OTTAWA—The Liberal government will keep the country’s top bureaucrat as the person ultimately responsible for alerting Canadians to foreign interference in the 2019 election, despite the opposition parties’ lost confidence in Michael Wernick’s neutrality.
Cameron Ahmad, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s deputy director of communications, told the Star Saturday they’ll keep Privy Council Clerk Wernick on the five-person committee tasked with assessing intelligence and sounding the alarm if foreign powers attempt to influence Canadians’ vote.
The two main opposition parties, the Conservatives and New Democrats, told the Star this week they no longer trust Wernick to serve on that committee — accusing him of partisanship after two tumultuous appearances at the House of Commons’ justice committee on the SNC-Lavalin affair.
The Liberal support for Wernick despite the opposition’s lost confidence sets up a potential showdown between the non-partisan public service and intelligence community and the opposition parties.
In two committee appearances over two weeks, Wernick repeatedly stressed that he has the highest security clearance in Canada and he is extremely concerned about foreign intervention in the upcoming federal election.
He has been criticized by opposition MPs as well as academics for making the claim that he fears a politician will be assassinated on the campaign trail. Wernick was before the committee to testify on the SNC-Lavalin affair that has embroiled the Liberal government for a month, not on electoral interference or potential assassinations.
Wesley Wark, one of Canada’s top scholars on security and intelligence matters, took Wernick to task in a column for using alarming language — the kind typically avoided by intelligence professionals when describing potential threats.
In a defiant speech in front of the committee on Wednesday, Wernick said he stood by every word.
“If that was seen as alarmist, so be it. I was pulling the alarm,” Wernick said. “We need a public debate about foreign interference.”
The decision to warn Canadians about specific foreign interference campaigns — the kind seen in recent elections in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and other democracies — is not Wernick’s alone.
The Critical Election Incident Public Protocol is comprised of five members, including Wernick, National Security Adviser Greta Bossenmaier, as well as the top bureaucrats from Global Affairs, Public Safety and Justice. All five are jointly responsible for assessing intelligence collected by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) on possible foreign meddling, and determining whether Canadians should be notified.
If the committee jointly determines that the threshold has been met, the Clerk would direct either CSE or CSIS to hold a news conference to alert the Canadian public.
But the question now is whether or not political parties — and Canadian voters — will see that warning as legitimate, given the oppositions’ assertion that Wernick is politically compromised.
The Star has learned that CSE has completed a report into the potential threats to the 2019 vote, and will release it publicly in the coming weeks.
It’s expected to provide more detail than a similar report released by the agency in 2017, which stated it was likely that both political parties and media companies will be targeted in cyber espionage campaigns.
Canada’s election system, which is low-tech and leaves a paper trail, is considered less vulnerable to cyber attacks than some purely electronic voting systems in certain U.S. states.
Wernick has declined repeated interview requests from the Star, most recently on Saturday.