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Spy service director expressed ‘full confidence’ in employees after ‘troubling’ leak

OTTAWA — The head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service told employees he stood by the spy agency’s handling of sensitive information following a “troubling” leak of classified material, a newly released memo shows. 

In a Feb. 24 message to staff, CSIS director David Vigneault expressed continuing faith in employees’ dedication and adherence to the law after a newspaper story cited secret spy service documents on foreign interference.

“The source of this leak is troubling for the Canadian government and, of course, for us here at CSIS,” Vigneault said in the memo, obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act. 

“In order for us to gather and share classified information as necessitated by our mandate and by the CSIS Act, we must have full confidence in the measures taken to adhere to the legal obligations surrounding its security, to ensure the full protection of our techniques, sources and employees.”

The memo came a week after the Globe and Mail newspaper, quoting classified CSIS records, said China worked to help ensure a Liberal minority victory in the 2021 general election as well as defeat Conservative politicians considered unfriendly to Beijing.

In March, the federal government appointed a special rapporteur to look into foreign interference, one of several measures to counter meddling and strengthen confidence in the electoral process.

The same month, the Globe and Mail published an open letter from an unnamed national security official who wrote that they went to the media because senior public officials were failing to take serious action against foreign interference.

Amid additional leaks to the media and pressure from opposition parties, the government announced in September that a Quebec judge would lead a public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference and the federal capacity to address the issue.  

In the memo, portions of which were considered too sensitive to release, Vigneault noted the secret documents the Globe was able to view had been shared among senior government officials, as well as a number of allies.

He said that while there had been public expressions of concern about security within CSIS, “I have full confidence in our people and our management of the information gathered in support of our mandate. We fulfil our mission with rigour and adherence to the law, and I stand by the security of the intelligence produced by our employees, on this subject or any other.”

Under Canada’s Security of Information Act, people bound to secrecy include current and former members of CSIS, as well as many other federal officials involved in security and intelligence.

On behalf of the spy service’s entire executive committee, Vigneault told CSIS employees: “I want to assure every one of you that our faith in your tireless dedication and adherence to the Security of Information Act and your oath remains unbroken. We firmly believe that the reputation of our employees’ commitment to our mission is well earned.”

The director also said he was “proud of the work that you do,” including efforts to uncover evidence of foreign influence.

Vigneault reminded personnel that CSIS’s employee assistance program “remains available to support you with any concerns of a personal nature.”

CSIS and the RCMP said in March that they were investigating leaks to the media about foreign interference.

An April message to CSIS personnel from the spy service’s director general of internal security provided an update, saying all employees “are encouraged to come forward should they wish to share information” relevant to the service’s investigation of leaks to the media. 

“Any information shared will be treated with the utmost confidentiality,” said the message, released under the access law in heavily censored form.

“This situation serves to remind us of the necessity to safeguard and protect our information, investigations and sources. As always, the safety and security of our employees is our top priority.”

CSIS spokesman Eric Balsam said this week that the compromise of information can threaten the integrity of the agency’s operations, the physical safety and security of its human sources and employees and the trust of international partners.

CSIS continues to investigate “these concerning activities, in parallel and in co-ordination with the RCMP criminal investigation,” Balsam added, declining to comment further given the ongoing probe.

RCMP Sgt. Kim Chamberland also said the police force continues to investigate violations of the Security of Information Act associated with media reports.

“This investigation is not focused on any one security agency. As the RCMP investigation is ongoing, there will be no further comment on this matter at this time.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2023.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press