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Jaskaran Sandhu: In Conversation With Former CSIS Exec Dan Stanton On Foreign Interference
"Therefore, the best course of action is to listen to the Sikh community, acknowledge their concerns, and realize that we are addressing the well-being of fellow Canadians."
July 7, 2023 | 12 min. read | Original Reporting
Dan Stanton was a former executive manager in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and had experience addressing national and international security and intelligence requirements in counter-terrorism, counter-espionage, and counter-proliferation. He is now a Director at the National Security Program at the University of Ottawa.
Stanton has been a go-to expert for Canadian media outlets tackling topics concerning Sikh Canadians, Indian foreign interference, and the general intelligence landscape in Canada recently. He sat down with Baaz for a one-on-one interview to discuss these topics. The interview has been edited for brevity.
Jaskaran Sandhu: In early June, Jody Thomas, the National Security Adviser to Prime Minister Trudeau, shared that India is among the top actors for foreign interference in Canada. For some Canadians, that would come as a surprise. What did you make of it?
Dan Stanton: It is easier to wrap your head around foreign interference when it comes to countries that have been demonized for quite some time, like Russia, China, and so on. I think having the National Security Adviser say what she said about India carries a lot of weight, however, as she’s the Prime Minister’s security adviser.
Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not just China engaging in foreign interference. It is just that China has a larger and more sophisticated methodology of foreign interference than countries like India, and in the long term, I would say is in some ways more damaging. But India does rank up there in the pantheon of countries engaging in foreign interference.
I think why people are a little surprised by India is because you think, “Well, wait a minute, isn’t India a democracy?” However, as long as concerned foreign activities are against Canada’s national interest, it will fit the CSIS threshold for foreign interference.
Jaskaran Sandhu: How does India’s foreign interference differ from other countries, like China or Russia?
Dan Stanton: China has what they call a whole-of-society approach to national security. Were basically, to an extent, every Chinese citizen, government department, and institution, including academia, has to defend the security of China, and that can include engaging in foreign interference in countries like Canada.
When you look at countries like India, however, they do not have that. India does engage in foreign interference though, they do try to wield influence in government and in diasporic communities. India will also not hesitate to put disinformation out there too, to try to muddy the waters as a form of interference.
Jaskaran Sandhu: On the point of disinformation, we saw the Indian national press quote India’s National Intelligence Agency in suggesting that grenades were thrown at the Indian High Commission in Ottawa, which is a patent lie. How is that kind of disinformation seen and treated within Canadian intelligence and security agencies?
Dan Stanton: While CSIS might examine digital disinformation, their primary focus is likely on threats by human actors that undermine national security. CSIS is looking for where activities are going to be more injurious, so where someone is being blackmailed, or someone is being threatened, or if there is anything linked to a situation like what is being alleged to have happened in the Hardeep Singh Nijjar killing, they would be very concerned about that and take some sort of action.
As for disinformation campaigns pushed through Indian media in India, those can subtly shape public opinion. For example, exaggerating incidents like attacks on Indian embassies in Canada, including false stories about a grenade attack on the Indian High Commission in Ottawa, could lead to misperceptions among millions of Indians or be picked up by Canadian media. However, it is unlikely that monitoring disinformation about Sikh Canadians in India is a top priority for CSIS.
Ultimately, it remains unclear whether significant attention is given by CSIS to disinformation pumped subtly through Indian media, but this serves as a noteworthy example of how manufactured threats can emerge.
Jaskaran Sandhu: We have reports now of CSIS and RCMP visiting Sikh Canadian activists and warning them of imminent threats to their lives, which has caused a lot of concern in the community. At what point do security agencies get involved like that?
Dan Stanton: CSIS collects intelligence and not evidence pertaining to criminal activities. However, there are instances where they come across criminal information while conducting their operations. It is possible that they received such incidental reporting indicating a potential risk to Mr. Nijjar. Typically, when it relates to terrorism or similar matters, CSIS would involve the RCMP or disclose the information for further investigation.
However, when there is a threat to someone's life or safety, known as "life and limb," standard disclosure mechanisms are disregarded. Instead, immediate action is taken, and if necessary, the information is passed directly on to the individual affected.
Jaskaran Sandhu: We have seen recent stories about foreign interference in our electoral process as well, have you had any experience looking into such examples?
Dan Stanton: During my time working on China, the level of foreign interference was not as comprehensive as what we are witnessing today. If the reports about foreign interference in electoral politics are accurate, foreign actors may indeed be cultivating relationships within political circles. In some cases, individuals may unknowingly become unwitting targets, manipulated and used by foreign entities. Others may receive direct instructions to engage in certain activities.
Many states consider diasporic communities as extensions of their own countries, disregarding their Canadian identity. This is why those within a targeted diasporic community, like the Sikh Canadian one, often have important insights, and it is crucial for the government to listen to their concerns about potential interference from countries like India.
Jaskaran Sandhu: The Indian government often alleges that Sikh Canadians are engaging in extremism or terrorism, it is something they bring up consistently in any bilateral meeting with Canadian officials, yet India seldomly shares any kind of evidence. How is that perceived by the Canadian government and security officials?
Dan Stanton: Based on my experience, it can be frustrating when a foreign state raises concerns about problems in our country without providing reliable information. Canada places great importance on ensuring fair trials and preventing unjust accusations. Therefore, when a foreign state labels someone as a terrorist or accuses them of supporting terrorism, it is essential for that state to provide credible and verifiable information. We cannot simply accept such claims at face value.
We must also consider factors like whether any information was obtained under duress or if there are potential biases involved. This applies to situations involving India, China, or any other state with a questionable human rights record. It is crucial for them to present substantial evidence and demonstrate the authenticity of the information rather than expecting blind belief based solely on their assertion.
Jaskaran Sandhu: In a recent Globe and Mail article, you make a comment about one challenge Canada has in dealing with accusations from India about the Khalistan movement is sorting out “what’s reliable intelligence on terrorism, and then what’s just the Indian government being the Indian government,” could you expand on what reputation India does have amongst security agencies in Canada on reliability?
Dan Stanton: It is important to note that it's not only India but also other states that often play fast and loose when labelling someone as a terrorist. These states have different criteria and standards for determining who qualifies as a terrorist.
In Canada, being labelled as a terrorist requires meeting specific criteria. There is a comprehensive checklist that must be met to establish someone as a criminal threat and classify them as a terrorist. If another state, not limited to India, accuses a Canadian, whether inside or outside Canada, of supporting terrorism, they must provide credible and reliable information to support their claim.
It is important to consider that India, in particular, may have its own agenda and tendency to quickly label certain individuals or activities as national security threats, often disregarding dissenting views from minority groups.
It is essential for the Canadian government and ourselves not to lose sight of the fact that India is a foreign state. Therefore, we should approach their claims or statements regarding the Sikh community with a healthy dose of skepticism, just as we would with any other foreign entity. We should not naively accept their viewpoint merely because we perceive it as India's internal matter or find it challenging to understand the intricacies involved.
It is crucial to recognize that if individuals are Canadian citizens, then it becomes a Canadian problem. This includes instances where foreign states interfere and claim to advocate for that particular community.
Jaskaran Sandhu: During Prime Minister Trudeau’s infamous trip to India, the Canadian government signed a security sharing framework with India which concerned Sikhs for a lot of the reasons you have already mentioned - from questionable intelligence to the targeting of Sikh Canadian activists here as well as their families in Punjab. Would a framework like that be counterproductive in tackling foreign interference from India?
Dan Stanton: Canada has always had and will continue to have information-sharing arrangements, especially in the realm of national security, which are often effective and valuable. However, it is crucial to maintain a level of skepticism. This applies to everyone involved.
While we strive to foster strong relationships with India, we must remain cautious about the accuracy of information, particularly in the intelligence business and counterterrorism efforts.
A prime example is the case of Mr. Arar, where false information led to his torture while he was in Syrian custody, despite being a Canadian citizen. This demonstrates the importance of treating information and intelligence exchanges with great care. We must properly assess and scrutinize the reliability and credibility of the information provided rather than blindly accepting it as absolute truth simply because it is presented to us.
Jaskaran Sandhu: Do you think Canada is doing enough to counter Indian foreign interference?
Dan Stanton: I don't have a definite answer to that question. It's an important question, and I believe we're treading into somewhat unfamiliar territory.
When it comes to China, we have a better understanding due to the longevity of their extensive programs. However, addressing the specific issue at hand may require a more concerted team effort and a different approach.
Nevertheless, I want to emphasize what the National Security Adviser stated about India being a top actor for foreign interference, as her position holds significant authority within the government, including recognition of the problem at hand. It's clear that improvements need to be made, particularly in terms of policy, to effectively deal with foreign interference. In upcoming hearings, if there are any, this is likely to be a key focus.
It's not just about addressing China; there are other countries we need to consider, such as India. Unfortunately, I don't have precise information on the extent of the threat posed by interference, so it's challenging to determine the specific actions required at this point.
Jaskaran Sandhu: What would your recommendation be to both the Canadian government and the Sikh Canadian community in effectively addressing foreign interference?
Dan Stanton: Yes, that's an excellent question. It's crucial for the government to actively listen to the Sikh community. In order to encourage people to come forward and share information, they need to feel assured that there will be meaningful consequences and actions taken. The current situation likely leaves the community feeling anxious, given the discussions about threats and the uncertainty surrounding Mr. Nijjar’s death. It's important to have faith in law enforcement and intelligence agencies, assuring the community that their government prioritizes their safety.
Moreover, it is essential to genuinely listen to the concerns and perspectives of the community. We cannot make assumptions or dismiss their grievances by labelling them as diaspora politics or community matters. Communication channels need to be established, including engagement from Members of Parliament to City Councillors. The federal and other levels of government must attentively listen to the Sikh community, even if there may be divergent opinions. This approach is crucial for fostering trust and encouraging people to come forward and share information.
If individuals perceive that their input will be disregarded or that no action will be taken, they will be hesitant to speak up. We have learned from previous experiences with China that genuine listening and meaningful consequences are vital. Therefore, the best course of action is to listen to the Sikh community, acknowledge their concerns and realize that we are addressing the well-being of fellow Canadians.
Jaskaran Sandhu: You may have seen the news about an individual being stopped by community members during Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s funeral for taking pictures of Sikhs and sending them to contacts in Indian intelligence and law enforcement, what does RCMP do to stop something like this and what does CSIS do with an instance like that?
Dan Stanton: If the situation is indeed genuine, and someone is sending that information to the Indian government, it falls under the jurisdiction of CSIS. CSIS is responsible for collecting intelligence and providing advice to the Canadian government. However, when it comes to stopping such activities, it's challenging to say what the RCMP can do. You probably will not see any criminal outcomes.
Speaking from my experience as an intelligence officer, I would be highly interested in investigating the matter further. Identifying the person on the receiving end of those pictures and information is crucial. It is important to determine if the individual that was stopped from taking pictures was acting as a proxy or if they have any affiliation with the Indian police or other entities. Obtaining such information would be a priority in order to assess the situation effectively. I see it as a real opportunity to get an insight into how the Indian government operates here.
Jaskaran Sandhu: Where do you see Indian interference going next in Canada, now that there is more national attention and awareness to it?
Dan Stanton: I believe India might adopt a more cautious approach and reevaluate their strategies. It certainly doesn't bode well for their public image. However, similar to China, I don't think it will necessarily deter their actions if there is indeed something at play.
There are likely a lot of behind-the-scenes discussions happening between diplomats and officials from Global Affairs Canada. They may express their dissatisfaction and concerns, but it is Global Affairs' responsibility to manage these relationships effectively, not just through protocols and agreements.
While I can't say for certain, it is likely that India is not pleased with the new scrutiny, and it adds another layer of complexity to Canada's management of that bilateral relationship.
Jaskaran Sandhu hails from Brampton, Canada, and is the co-founder of Baaz. He is a Strategist at the public affairs and relations agency State Strategy. Jaskaran also previously served as Executive Director for the World Sikh Organization of Canada and as a Senior Advisor to Brampton’s Office of the Mayor. You can find Jaskaran on Twitter at @JaskaranSandhu_
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