Story highlights Canada’s intelligence services say they infiltrated an online smear campaign targeting a political candidate
But watchdog says their activities went beyond the scope of their mandate
Canada’s intelligence services faced resistance from a high-profile federal election in 2015.
And while it’s not uncommon for spies to gather information on political campaigns and protest movements, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Canada’s Central Intelligence Agency (CSIS) are accused of subverting Canada’s Elections Act.
A newly-released report from the country’s watchdog watchdog, as cited by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, found that when investigative team CSIS became aware of an election-related disinformation campaign, they tried to block the investigation and even personally harassed the whistleblower.
How it all began
The report stems from the concerted efforts of conservative political group Project Cleanse to disrupt and influence Quebec’s provincial election in 2014.
Former Liberal Party member Olivier Duchesneau, who had worked in the military, fought corruption within his old party during a period of high unemployment and political instability.
According to the report, he became frustrated with the Liberal Party and was close with Project Cleanse members–some of whom also worked on Team Conservative.
“At the time, the desire to remove the Liberals from office that was united by many factional-factions was strong. The threat which Mr. Duchesneau and his allies perceived to their personally gained interests and their group[‘s] inevitable defeat served to galvanize this support in a way that would lead them to pursue political advantage by way of criminal means in the opinion of both Mr. Duchesneau and CSE officers,” reads the report.
CSIS ordered Canadian police to dismantle Project Cleanse — and other extremists groups the spy agency felt could be used to influence election results — because it viewed the group as a terrorist organization.
During the investigation, Duchesneau revealed to CSIS officials that Project Cleanse was infiltrated by Canadian intelligence agents who planted disinformation in a blog he worked for, as well as other Conservative Party and Muslim groups. The spies reportedly provided fake credentials to these groups and information about the personalities of foreign politicians as part of Project Cleanse’s supposed “dirty tricks.”
The spy agency also created fake statements through global social media analytics platforms to appear as though they came from unknown individuals who used the web-based platform to taunt election candidates.
But some of the statements the spy agency planted included the following:
“I don’t care what your party is like….I just want you to lose.”
“I was born a member of the PC Party (Canadian Progressive Conservative Party) …”
“PC supporters are good, they are simple and just keep asking for more and more freedom.”
But some information, including this last sentence, landed in an anti-Stephen Harper Facebook post.
“Members of the Liberal Party of Canada, the NDP, the Greens and the Bloc Party of Quebec could care less about you, Canadians,” said the post. “If you are a person who has ever turned to them when you’re feeling up against it then you must be someone who craves their pity.”
Canada’s election watchdog says the RCMP and CSIS, among others, engaged in a “coordinated, widespread campaign of political misinformation”
However, despite the spy agency’s interest in Project Cleanse, the Canadian election watchdog says the RCMP and CSIS, among others, engaged in a “coordinated, widespread campaign of political misinformation targeting Canadians, their organizations and their communities.”
Among the complaints the watchdog received, there were accusations that individuals targeted because of their political beliefs were targeted for shaming online.
While police had limited legal jurisdiction to investigate the agencies’ actions, the spy agency testified in court that they believed its actions were lawful.
However, a jury later ruled that the Canadian spy agency violated Canada’s Elections Act. Though the watchdog says these efforts went beyond the scope of the spy agency’s mandate.
This case, which is in the appellate stage, has sparked criticism from advocacy groups and some of Canada’s politicians.
“This is a prime example of where private interests look like powerful elements of government and the rule of law, and government becomes institutionally involved in influencing the electoral process,” Anil Arora, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, told NPR.