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Foreign interference inquiry hearing some federal evidence behind closed doors

OTTAWA — The head of a commission of inquiry into foreign interference has agreed to a federal request to present some evidence in private.
Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue listens to a lawyer speak at the inquiry intoforeign inerference, on Friday, February 2, 2024 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — The head of a commission of inquiry into foreign interference has agreed to a federal request to present some evidence in private.

In a decision released Monday, commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue said she is satisfied that the disclosure of certain classified information could harm Canada or its allies.

As a result, Hogue said, she must hear the federal evidence in the absence of other inquiry participants and the public.

"I have already pressed and intend to continue to press the government to disclose as much information as possible, but I must recognize that there is some information that cannot be divulged publicly," she said in the written decision.

Hogue said the commission, with transparency in mind, will produce a summary of the information presented privately so the public can see as much of it as possible.

In addition, if divulging some of the information heard privately would not cause injury, commission counsel can introduce that information at subsequent public hearings.

In its initial phase, the inquiry is examining allegations of foreign interference by China, India, Russia or others in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

No dates have been announced for private or public hearings on the substance of these allegations.

A report on the findings is due May 3.

The inquiry will then shift to broader policy issues, looking at the ability of the government to detect, deter and counter foreign interference targeting Canada's democratic processes. A final report is expected by the end of the year.

Hogue said last month the government had told her it would be necessary to hear some evidence behind closed doors. 

She said the government would have the burden of convincing her that disclosure of such evidence to inquiry participants or the public could endanger national security.

If left unpersuaded by government arguments, Hogue said, she would require that the evidence be presented publicly.

Hogue said Monday that in arriving at her latest decision, she heard private arguments from four witnesses, two from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and two from the Communications Security Establishment, Canada's cyberspy agency.

"The potential injuries described by the witnesses included harm to the intelligence agencies' human sources, harm resulting from the disclosure of the agencies’ investigative interests and capabilities, and harm to relationships with foreign agencies on whom Canada relies for information-sharing," Hogue wrote.

In fact, much of the information that has been provided to the commission — information Hogue's counsel were hoping to introduce — is not only classified as Top Secret, but "subject to further control systems and  compartments, meaning that it is exceptionally sensitive," she added.

In a second decision released Monday, Hogue granted the Iranian Canadian Congress intervener standing in the factual phase of the inquiry and standing in the policy phase.

The organization describes itself as a non-profit, non-partisan and non-religious organization established in 2007 to represent the interests of Iranian Canadians with core values of peace, solidarity, freedom, justice and transparency.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2024.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press