Why the Commons Security Committee Got it Wrong about Richard Fadden

General Commentary

Just prior to uprooting for the election, the House of Commons public safety and national security committee issued a "Report on Canadian Security Intelligence Director Richard Fadden's Remarks Regardng Alleged Foreign Influence of Canadian Politicians".  Fadden was censured by the committee for observations made in a CBC interview in June 2010, as follows:

There are several municipal politicians in British Columbia and in at least two provinces there are ministers of the Crown who we think are under at least the general influence of a foreign government.

They haven’t really hidden their association but what surprised us is that it’s been so extensive over the years and we’re now seeing, in a couple of cases, indications that they are in fact shifting their public policies as a reflection of that involvement with that particular country.

The committee also identified the following comment, concerning what the committee called "Chinese lobbyists":

They’re funding Confucius institutes in most of the campuses across Canada. They fund them. They’re sort of managed by people who are operating out of the embassy or consulates. Nobody knows that the Chinese authorities are involved. They organize demonstrations against …they have organized demonstrations against the Canadian government in respect to some of our policies concerning China. They’ve organized demonstrations to deal with what are called the five poisons: Taiwan, Falun Gong, and others.

In the committee's views, these statements had "negative and harmful impacts on Canadians of Chinese origin and other cultural backgrounds, and their elected representatives."  No data in support of this assertion was presented (the committee apparently was taking the political equivalent of "judicial notice" of this asserted fact).  The committee was also incensed that Fadden, when he appeared before them, neither retracted nor substantiated his claims.  Retraction, one would assume, would be appropriate if the statements were untrue.  Meanwhile, Fadden declined to embellish his account because of the "operational nature of this information".

In the result, the committee recommended, among other things, that Fadden be forced into resignation -- fired -- "for having stated, in circumstances entirely under his control, that ministers in two provinces as well as municipal elected officials in British Columbia were agents of influence of foreign governments, thereby sowing doubt about the probity and integrity of a number of elected officials and creating a climate of suspicion and paranoia."  They also recommended that

  • "the Director of CSIS be held to his duty to exercise discretion and not participate in any public forum other than in the context of the activities of Parliament",
  • "the Director of CSIS not become an agent of influence for the government’s political and ideological agenda and instead focus on CSIS’s statutory mandate" and,
  • "on a go forward basis, people occupying higher offices, such as the Director of CSIS, not be permitted to make public statements that cavalierly cast aspersions on select groups of Canadians, and should they do so that the Government of Canada immediately take action to clarify said comments and to hold that individual accountable."

These are recommendations made by politicians on their way to the hustings, and not careful thinking by policy-makers. 

CSIS Needs a Face

If Richard Fadden is to be criticized for anything, it is for the apparent confusion about whether and to what extent the government had been briefed about his concerns prior to his statements.  But to suggest that the CSIS director must never speak except to Parliament and to his bosses in the executive takes us back several notches in the transparency and accountability discussion.  The CSIS director should be seen and heard on important issues of national security, and both Mr. Fadden and his predecessor, Jim Judd, should be congratulated for efforts they have made to participate in public forums and venues on these issues.

A Free Market of thinking about threats

Substantively, Mr. Fadden's comments were almost banal -- no one can seriously doubt that China has an intelligence capacity and that it can and will exercise influence through the Chinese diaspora.  Saying that is very far from painting every Canadian and Canadian politician of Chinese descent a Chinese "agent of influence".  Condemning the substance of Mr. Fadden's comments is the height of political correctness and a true disservice to truly understanding and protecting Canadian interests.

If the committee's reasoning were to be applied generally, then we should expect CSIS to have nothing to say publicly about instances of radicalization in the Muslim community, radicalism in the Sikh community, or fundraising for the Tamil Tigers (a listed terrorist group) in the Tamil community.  These things happen -- we have the criminal convictions to prove it. 

The argument favouring frank discussion about these and other threats is the same argument favouring free speech generally: as summarized by Fredrick Siebert, "let all with something to say be free to express themselves. The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished."

Put another way, it is much better to have CSIS spell it out as they see it -- and be challenged if their position is dubious -- than have them simply believing it internally and exercising their powers accordingly, in the shadows.  If the committee doubted Fadden's concerns, what it should have done is to hold hearings on agents of influence in Canada, and used its powers to compel information (so famously underscored by the Speaker in his Afghan detainee document ruling) to extract more than a polite demurral about operational matters.  (Going in camera might alleviate some concerns about preserving operational security, but definitely not all them).

All the committee has done with its recommendations is propose forcing CSIS deeper into the shadows, with no appreciable benefit for Canadian security or democracy.