Like The Hub?
Join our community.

‘They had six years to order changes’: A chief of staff explains why the Johnston report ‘doesn’t compute’


Former governor general and independent special rapporteur David Johnston released his report on foreign election interference this week, recommending against a public inquiry into the issue. Johnston also dug into how intelligence reports find their way through the bureaucracy and why some important documents were missed by key people in the government. The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer spoke with Ian Brodie, the former chief of staff to Stephen Harper, for some insight into how governments handle classified and top secret information.

SEAN SPEER: One of David Johnston’s key findings is the following: “Staff at the PMO speak of being given a large binder in a secure room with an agency client relations officer present, a short time to review it, with no context or prioritization of the material, and no ability to take notes (for security reasons). The binder may have a significant mix of topics from around the world, and no one says, ‘you should pay attention to this issue in particular.’ If staffers are away, they may not see the binder that day.” This sounds pretty sub-optimal. Is that consistent with your experience?

IAN BRODIE: I don’t understand this part of the report. When Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff testified at committee recently, she spoke of a system in which she was briefed regularly and nothing was withheld from the prime minister. Of course, anything that is reported to PMO is assumed to be important, otherwise it wouldn’t be sent over. Whenever I had questions about a report I received, I found the agencies were quick to get back with clarification or further background. The Privy Council Office has its own in-house intelligence analysis group, the International Assessments Secretariat, and I eventually got to know many of the analysts who worked there.  

SEAN SPEER: One of the more shocking findings is that intelligence concerning the PRC’s targeting of MP Michael Chong was sent to the Public Safety Minister and his chief of staff via a Top-Secret Email Network but they did not read it because they did not have access to the network. Does that make sense to you? How did you tend to access and review intelligence materials?

IAN BRODIE: I have no idea how Mr. Mendicino’s office works, but this part of the Johnston report doesn’t compute with me. I received intelligence reporting on paper and with in-person briefings because I did not have a Top-Secret facility in my office. Intelligence analysts were always on hand to provide background as to why a report was in my folder that day. I assume Mr. Mendicino meets regularly with his deputy minister — ministers are expected to make time to meet with their department officials regularly — and I am sure his deputy would have been able to hand-deliver intelligence reporting at one of these meetings. Again, given that this intelligence report dealt with a foreign government’s effort to punish a MP’s family for a vote taken in the House of Commons, I cannot imagine any official, let alone a deputy minister, deciding not to send that report to the minister. And if the minister refused to take it, to have PCO intervene to make sure the reporting was shared with political people — ministers and senior political staff.  

SEAN SPEER: How much are these issues concerning the distribution and use of intelligence within the government a function of legal and policy factors versus the actions and preferences of the political arm of the government? That is to say, how much influence does PMO and the Cabinet have on the culture and processes of intelligence sharing and briefings?

IAN BRODIE: I only know how these matters were handled when I was chief of staff. I thought the reporting was important, I made it clear I would make time to be briefed, and I often asked follow up questions that required follow up reporting. I visited several intelligence agencies in person while I was chief of staff. Mr. Harper read a great deal of intelligence reporting and acknowledged he had read it in writing.  

If the PM and his ministers found their national security briefings were not helpful to them, my goodness, they had six years to order changes before the Chong report was issued.

SEAN SPEER: What did you take away from the report? Was there anything that surprised you?

IAN BRODIE: Johnston is correct: relying on seriatim media reports of bits and pieces of intelligence reporting can give the reader an incomplete picture of what was known and when it was known. Simply saying “trust us, it’s fine” is even less helpful. What would help everyone understand what was going on?  A full, public inquiry that prepares a full report to everyone.

We sometimes forget — this is how CSIS came to be in the first place. There was a full, frank and public inquiry into covert operations of the RCMP security service. The inquiry revealed many covert details about the security service’s operations and tactics. The inquiry thought Canadians could be trusted will the whole truth, and the government of the day created CSIS in response.

Howard Anglin: Canada’s top men


Near the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and fellow archaeologist-adventurer Dr. Marcus Brody sit down with U.S. Army Intelligence to discuss the fate of the Ark. Indy and Brody want to know what the government plans to do with it, and Major Eaton—who we know can’t be trusted because he’s an adipose pipe-smoking government man in a grey suit—isn’t exactly forthcoming.

Brody: “The Ark is a source of unspeakable power and it has to be researched …” 

Major Eaton: “And it will be, I assure you … we have top men working on it right now.”

Indy (leaning across the table): “Who?”

Major Eaton: “Top. Men.”

That answer doesn’t satisfy our heroes, but what can they do?It’s always puzzled me why, after tracking the Ark of the Covenant halfway around the world and battling a Nazi army to secure it, Dr. Jones was so quick to let it go. He’s not at least a little curious about what the government has done with the world’s most powerful and dangerous weapon? Forget Indian temples, the sequel should have been “Indiana Jones and the Government Bureaucracy of Doom.” “Top men” are on the job, and that’s all the government thinks they need to know. 

I don’t know if the Rt. Hon. David Johnston—as top a man as Canada has to offer—is a fan of the Indiana Jones movies, but his performance at the press conference accompanying his report into foreign interference reminded me of that grey-suited, pipe-smoking government man.

In response to the first question, Johnston explained in detail his interactions with Justin Trudeau as a boy and as a student at McGill University. His tone was indignant, as befits a man defending his honour. It was, you see, Trudeau’s father that was his close friend and the children just happened to be hanging around, bumming the occasional ride home. 

I’m prepared to believe that Johnston’s impressively specific recollection of events from 40 years ago is factually true, but it was quite a contrast to the rather cozier impression he was happy to convey in an interview with journalist Bob Fife in 2016. 

Back then, Johnston gushed about how he and his wife had become “good friends” with the junior Trudeau, who live nearby on the grounds of Rideau Hall. Why, just the other day, Johnston told Fife, the prime minister’s children came over for homemade cookies.

According to the accompanying CTV story, “It’s the kind of encounter that can only happen in Ottawa.” This is because:

Johnston, who represents the Queen in Canada, lives on a 79-acre park nestled near the Ottawa River. He’s a landlord of sorts to the Trudeau family, who moved into a cottage on the grounds of Rideau Hall as the government prepares to renovate 24 Sussex. 

(Remember when Trudeau was going to renovate 24 Sussex, instead of letting it crumble like an Oedipal House of Usher?)

When Fife remarked that “a lot of Canadians don’t realise that you in fact were a very good friend of Pierre Elliot Trudeau,” far from demurring, Johnston beamed and quipped, “I guess it shows what a small country Canada is.” That’s a charitable way to describe a national elite every bit as insular and incestuous (though far less interesting) than the beaux mondes of Proust or Powell.

In the gilded bubble that David Johnston has lived in for more than sixty years, Canada really is a small country. No one is more than one degree of separation from a governor general, a prime minister, a clerk of the privy council, or a Supreme Court justice. Add in philanthropic foundations and board memberships, and the world circumscribed by Bay Street and Rue St-Jacques becomes very small indeed.

This was comically clear during the SNC-Lavalin imbroglio, when the chair of SNC-Lavalin, who just happened to be a former clerk of the privy council, engaged former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to convince the Prime Minister’s Office and the then-clerk of the privy council that the attorney general could intervene to help the company avoid criminal charges. 

Iacobucci then engaged another former Supreme Court justice, John Major, to draft a related legal opinion, which for good measure he shared with yet another former Supreme Court justice, Beverley McLachlin. At roughly the same time, the Prime Minister’s Office also discussed hiring Beverley McLachlin to encourage the attorney general to see the wisdom of SNC-Lavalin’s position. 

Finally, after she resigned, the attorney general hired former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell to advise her on handling her post-ministerial role. As Yuan Yi Zhu wrote at the time, in a line that should be a national proverb, “No scandal is a scandal in Canada unless at least one retired Supreme Court justice has been involved.” 

If we graded scandals by the number of ex-justices involved, SNC-Lavalin was a four-judge scandal. So far, the Foreign Interference debacle is just a one-judge affair, but that may be because Beverley McLachlin is already busy lending her reputation to Beijing via a seat on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. 

The justice in question here is, once again, Frank Iacobucci. In response to another question about whether he has been concerned to avoid not just an actual conflict of interest but even the appearance of a conflict, Johnston revealed that the former justice had advised him there was no conflict. So that’s that, then. Any appearance of impropriety is our problem, not his.

What standard did Mr. Iacobucci apply in his legal opinion? What facts did he consider? How longstanding, exactly, is their friendship (here is Johnston calling Mr. Iacobucci “a great friend” in 2017)? Was the opinion delivered over a glass of dry sherry and mixed nuts at the Rideau Club or a G&T and crustless sandwiches at the RCYC?

Of course, we won’t get answers to any of these questions. It’s enough for us to know that top men are on the job. Top. Men.

Johnston was right. Canada really is a small country…if you’re lucky enough to move in circles where “good friends” share a leafy Ottawa estate, where you can ask a “great friend” for a legal opinion clearing you of a conflict of interest, and where you can get your dad’s old confidant to grade your job performance on a matter of national security.

Between superannuated Supremes and eminent Canadians, our federal politics sometimes feels like a collegial class of old friends swapping favours and extending to each other a presumption of trust and goodwill that I suspect very few ordinary Canadians think they deserve. In other words, it’s just another day at the office for Canada’s top men.