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Fired scientists played down links to China, failed to protect information: documents

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OTTAWA -

Two scientists at a high-security laboratory lost their jobs after reviews found they failed to protect sensitive assets and information and played down their collaborations with Chinese government agencies, newly released records show.

The scientists, Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were stripped of their security clearances over questions about their loyalty to Canada and the potential for coercion or exploitation by a foreign entity, the documents say.

More than 600 pages were made public Wednesday following a special all-party review of the records.

Opposition parties hoped the documents would shed light on why Qiu and Cheng were escorted out of Winnipeg's National Microbiology Laboratory in July 2019 and subsequently fired in January 2021.

They also wanted to see documents related to the transfer, overseen by Qiu, of deadly Ebola and Henipah viruses to China's Wuhan Institute of Virology in March 2019.

Three former senior judges had the final say on public disclosure of the newly disclosed documents, which are partially redacted.

The records show the Canadian Security Intelligence Service assessed that Qiu repeatedly lied about the extent of her work with institutions of the Chinese government and refused to admit involvement in various Chinese programs, even when evidence was presented to her.

CSIS concluded that despite being given every opportunity in her interviews to describe her association with Chinese entities, "Ms. Qiu continued to make blanket denials, feign ignorance or tell outright lies."

A November 2020 Public Health Agency of Canada report on Qiu says investigators "weighed the adverse information and are in agreement with the CSIS assessment."

Investigators concluded that Qiu's loyalty "remains of grave concern" due to her direct contact with the entities linked to a foreign state.

A Public Health Agency report on Cheng's activities says he allowed restricted visitors to work in laboratories unescorted and on at least two occasions did not prevent the unauthorized removal of laboratory materials.

The report also says Cheng was not forthcoming about his activities and collaborations with people from government agencies "of another country, namely members of the People's Republic of China."

"Dr. Cheng's actions reflect those of an individual who is careless with information and assets in his custody and not forthcoming and truthful when questioned about these communications."

In a statement, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre accused the Liberal government of allowing the Chinese government and its entities to infiltrate Canada's top-level lab.

"This is a massive national security failure by Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government, which he fought tooth and nail to cover up."

Health Minister Mark Holland acknowledged the documents reveal a "lax adherence to security protocols."

But Holland insisted that at no time did national secrets or information that threatened the security of Canada leave the lab.

"I think that there was an inadequate understanding of the threat of foreign interference," he told reporters.

"I believe that an earnest effort was made to adhere to those policies, but not with the rigour that was required."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 28, 2024.

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