Security adviser warned PM of public concerns on foreign agent registry: memo
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OTTAWA – A newly released memo shows the prime minister’s national security adviser warned him to expect some pushback from planned public consultations about a foreign agent registry, given that countries have used such registries as tools of control.
In her memo last August, Jody Thomas told Justin Trudeau the discussions “may elicit a range of reactions” — from applause to reservations.
“Concerns may be further amplified since some foreign governments, like Russia, have used ‘foreign agent registries’ to silence activists and shut down organizations critical of government,” Thomas said.
However, she said, national security experts, Canada’s allies and diaspora groups targeted by hostile states “will likely welcome these measures.”
The Canadian Press obtained the memo, marked Secret/Canadian Eyes Only, through the Access to Information Act. Portions of the document, including cabinet confidences and information about internal consultations, were withheld from release.
The memo reveals that Trudeau had a discussion last June 30 with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese about “establishing a foreign agent registry in Canada and Australia’s experience in that regard.”
Australia brought in its Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act five years ago as a means of preventing outside interference in the country’s affairs.
Internationally, foreign agent registries are considered among the best practices to counter malign external influence, the memo says. The U.S. Foreign Agent Registry Act has been in place since 1938 and the United Kingdom has also moved to implement such a scheme.
Registries can require individuals to formally register with the government they are trying to influence to make such dealings more transparent, with the possibility of fines or even prison time for failing to comply.
Following a flurry of media stories about alleged foreign interference, Public Safety Canada announced a public consultation earlier this month on how Canada could implement a foreign influence transparency registry.
However, the Thomas memo indicates that last summer the department was eyeing broader public consultations that would explore not only a foreign registry but other measures to counter what the government calls hostile activities by state actors.
Such activities, intended to undermine Canada’s interests, include actions that are deceptive, coercive, covert, threatening or illegal. Goals include influencing change, obtaining military or economic advantages and gaining access to sensitive information or technologies.
“Hostile actors have become increasingly adept at exploiting Canada’s open, democratic system,” the memo says.
The broader consultations could include a look at changes to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, the Criminal Code and the Security of Information Act, it adds.
Thomas confirmed to Trudeau that, “As per your direction, your office is engaged in the consultation planning.”
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino signalled late last November in an interview that the government intended to hold a public consultation on a foreign agent registry.
But he also stressed the importance of equipping law enforcement and national security partners with “a broad range of tools” to counter not only foreign interference, but “hostile activities that are committed by state and non-state actors,” cyberattacks and ideologically motivated extremism.
Mendicino’s office had no immediate comment on the status of broader consultations.
Beyond public disclosure requirements for foreign agents, Australia’s foreign influence transparency scheme imposes additional registration obligations and prohibitions for former cabinet ministers and senior public servants, Thomas’s memo notes.
It includes a lifetime registration obligation for former cabinet ministers who go on to work for a foreign principal after leaving public office. In addition, any Australian who has acted as a foreign agent cannot serve in cabinet.
Australia’s experience suggests that some former politicians and senior public servants chose to cease their activities as foreign agents rather than have their associations made public, the memo says. Other organizations have halted activities to avoid registration, or proactively clarified their arrangements with foreign principals to comply with the legislative scheme.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2023.