OTTAWA -- The former director of the CIA says Canada should be concerned about potential interference, Russian or otherwise, in the fast-approaching 2019 federal election.
"I think any democracy these days needs to be concerned about foreign interference in their elections," said John Brennan in an exclusive interview with Evan Solomon on CTV's Question Period.
"Canada, like other countries in Europe and throughout the world, need to be mindful that there are individuals in countries out there that are going to try to do them harm, including in their electoral systems," he said.
To prepare, Brennan said it’s important that Canada hardens its electoral system, identify its vulnerabilities, and protect critical infrastructure -- something he described as a multi-year effort.
This threat is something the federal government says it’s looking into, but so far has been light on details of how that will come together.
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould has been mandated to work with the Minister of National Defence and the Minister of Public Safety to protect Canada’s electoral system from foreign threats and hackers.
On Feb. 27 the federal government announced hundreds of millions of dollars for new cybersecurity initiatives as part of the 2018 budget. As part of this, the government is putting in $7.1 million over five years for the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections to shore up Canadian electoral processes.
Last year the CSE issued a report that found that Canada’s democratic process is not immune to potential interference by outside actors.
In the United States, over a dozen Russians have been indicted for allegedly executing a plot to meddle with the 2016 presidential election.
"The Russians have demonstrated that they are seeking to influence political events in other countries, through the manipulation of the digital environment, as well as putting out these personas that purport to be citizens of these countries," Brennan said. “It was the view, and the unanimous view of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and Director of National Intelligence that there was incontrovertible proof that the Russians did interfere."
Gould has previously told reporters that she's anticipating the 2019 election to be a very different story than the 2015 election when it comes to the role technology and social media might play.
"Foreign state actors have been more active over the past year and so this is something that we are constantly learning more about," Gould told reporters in October 2017.
Next '911' could be a cyberattack: Brennan
Brennan said the cyber environment is the area facing the most serious threat and as a former top intelligence official, it’s what keeps him up at night.
"I worry about the cyber environment, the digital environment, because of all of the potential troublemaking that can be done there, whether that be by the Russian intelligence services, or whether it be by organized criminals or hackers, that is the environment that holds most of our future security and prosperity in its midst," Brennan said.
"Therefore it’s very important I think, that we as governments and societies take that risk very seriously, try to strengthen that environment," to make sure that "we’re not going to have the equivalent of a 911 attack in that cyber environment."
The government is planning to spend $507.7 million over the next five years for a new national cyber security strategy as well as $155.2 million for the creation of a new Canadian Centre for Cyber Security.
The new strategy will focus on making sure Canadian cyber systems are secure, and the new Centre will be created by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) to centralize cyber expertise and information.
"Cyber-attacks are becoming more pervasive, increasingly sophisticated and ever more effective. Successful cyber-attacks have the potential to expose the private information of Canadians, cost Canadian businesses millions of dollars, and potentially put Canada’s critical infrastructure networks at risk," the budget reads.
In the interview Brennan waded into a number of high-profile security matters. Here is what he had to say:
On Trump's 'America First' approach on the global stage
"It cannot be 'America first, America first,' it has to be 'America is going to lead,' it's going to be the leader of the free world, and making sure that we continue to fulfil our responsibilities, to prevent authoritarian regimes from … trouncing human rights. The United States has, I think, the role of basically the sole super power and we need to be able to exert that leadership in ways that I believe that the current administration in Washington is not."
Rehabilitating ISIS fighters?
"I believe that there needs to be an effort made to try to rehabilitate as many of them as possible. I think a lot of it is going to be unique to the circumstances of the individual and what type of environment they come back to. Is there a family environment here? And what is the government going to do to try to facilitate their re-introduction into society? Or are they going to continue to harbour these sentiments and views and be a threat to Canadians."
On Canada joining ballistic missile defence
"The threat is real and we need to address the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities… there needs to be military preparation and resolve as well… I think it’s critically important for the United States and Canada to be working hand and glove on these issues."
Torture at Guantanamo Bay?
"Guantanamo, unfortunately I think, has a rather sordid history."
"The enhanced interrogation program that was run by the CIA was a program that was authorized by the president of the United States… There were instances where individuals exceeded their authorities and they were held to account for it. I think there were some reprehensible actions but within the four corners of what was authorized by that program. It was not torture because it was deemed lawful by the Department of Justice."
Vetting people close to a world leader and Jaspal Atwal
"Any system that involves people, and databases, and systems, will have imperfection in it at some point. There is no system that is fail-safe but I think that it’s imperative that we continue to review these systems, and when problems like that happen, there are a lot of lessons learned and to try to strengthen the system."
"I’m not going to stand here and say that [Jaspal Atwal attending an event in India] never would have happened in the United States because we have had instances."
On Trump's dismissal of intelligence findings
"By questioning those judgements for so long it really has hurt the image of the intelligence community in the United States in the eyes of the world."
"It was the view, and the unanimous view of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and Director of National Intelligence that there was incontrovertible proof that the Russians did interfere, and for Mr. Trump to continue to not embrace that and then act upon it, and that’s what’s most important, acting upon it and sending clear signals to Russia and others, that we’re not going to tolerate this, and there’s going to be costs if you decide to do this again."