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Huawei may be awakening Canadians to real threats of the world, says former spymaster

Huawei may be awakening Canadians to real threats of the world, says former spymaster
Canada
VANCOUVER—The spotlight shining on Huawei may help correct Canadians’ chronic underestimation of the threat to their country’s sovereignty, said Richard Fadden, former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, during a sit-down interview.

Global tensions have risen to a level not seen since the Cold War, he said, and awakening the Canadian public to this reality is critical to achieving the domestic and international co-ordination necessary to address the evolving environment.

Richard Fadden, former director of CSIS, said more is at stake with Huawei than data entering the wrong hands.  (Perrin Grauer / Star Vancouver)

“Fundamentally, Canadians don’t feel threatened,” Fadden told The Star on Tuesday ahead of a talk arranged by the Canadian International Council foreign-relations organization.

“We have three oceans and the United States. We have been less attacked than other countries, although we have been attacked … But fundamentally, we don’t feel threatened. And the only time we talk about national security is after a crisis. And I think that’s the worst time to talk about it, because people get excited and things get polarized.”

Fadden, who has held numerous positions with the Government of Canada including national security adviser to the prime minister and deputy minister of national defence, said this general misperception seems to be shifting as Canadians raise eyebrows over Beijing’s furious reprisal for the December arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

Both Huawei and Meng have denied all U.S. allegations, while the Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly asserted the legitimacy of its actions against its Canadian detainees.

Following the approval of extradition proceedings by Canada’s justice minister in March, media outlets reported Kovrig and Spavor had been accused of spying while on Chinese soil.

In January, a third Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, was sentenced to death in a Chinese court following a one-day retrial on drug offences for which he’d already been tried and sentenced to prison.

And in March, Beijing began , delivering non-compliance notices on seed sales to a series of Canadian firms.

Meanwhile, international intelligence experts have repeatedly raised concerns that allowing Huawei equipment into domestic 5G infrastructure risks opening a backdoor to espionage and cyber-attacks by Beijing — a charge both Huawei and Beijing have dismissed.

Despite multiple assurances from Huawei officials that the company would never submit to orders from Beijing to hand over sensitive user data, such claims of corporate immunity to party interest represent “an impractical proposition in a state like China,” Fadden said.

“China has a recognized worldwide reputation for being a relatively aggressive intelligence and information gatherer and influencer,” he said.

But Fadden said more is at stake than data entering the wrong hands. Using Huawei equipment risks making infrastructure connected to Canadian 5G networks vulnerable to Beijing’s control, he said — opening Canada up to extortion during political disputes. Giving that kind of leverage to a foreign power could endanger Canada’s sovereign, democratic decision-making capacity, he suggested.

“I think there’s ample evidence that the risk is too great to take.”

There will be pain in the short term, he added, regardless of where Canada lands in its decision on Huawei. A shifting geopolitical landscape has seen Western countries increasingly turn their gazes inward — a trend most profoundly felt in the case of the United States, which had emerged from the Cold War era as the world’s lone superpower, he said.

China’s ascendancy on the global stage has spurred further profound change in power relations across the planet, he added — a development made more complicated by the country’s head-butting with the increasingly protectionist United States.

This “new operational environment” requires Canada to make alliances and deepen relationships with other powers — such as Japan or nations in South Asia, Fadden suggested — to shore up its ability to realize its national interests. This diversification of alliances will be especially critical given that, with respect to an issue such as Huawei, Canada’s manoeuvring will inarguably run afoul of either Washington or Beijing.

“I don’t envy Mr. Trudeau and his ministers, because they really do have quite a balancing act,” he said.

“I’ve never been a minister and I never will be. If I were, I would not allow Huawei in, because in the long term that’s a very, very serious risk: that once they’re allowed in we will never be able to dig ourselves out.”

The global power shift has also been accompanied by an acceleration and diversification of threats, he pointed out, particularly with respect to cyber security. Defending Canada against these threats will require new funding and resources for security initiatives — an extraordinarily challenging political goal to achieve in a country where the public doesn’t feel threatened.

All levels of government and law enforcement — as well as hyperlocal and international partners — need to co-operate more on intelligence sharing than has historically been the case, he said.

“One of the problems in Canada — and I’ve made myself unpopular with some of my old colleagues — is I don’t think the federal government shares classified information as well as it could,” he said.

Fadden noted real trust between local and federal actors is critical to addressing threats that no longer come simply from rogue states or criminal organizations but can come in the guise of community groups or even a single individual with a laptop and a grudge to bear.

“I think we would be not discharging our duties in the public interest if all of us who have an interest in this — including politicians — didn’t talk about it more and try to bring people along … (Because) in particular with cyber, though also with terrorism and other things, we are at risk. And we have to face up to it.”
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