07/09/2019 16:32 EDT | Updated 07/09/2019 17:19 EDT

If There's An Election Threat, Telling The Public Is A 'Last Resort': Officials

And only if the risk is "exceptional."

Justin Tang/CP
The Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa is shown on Aug. 2, 2015

OTTAWA — If Canadians hear from a high-level panel monitoring electoral interference during the campaign period, it will only be because of “exceptional circumstances.” 

That’s what reporters were told during a briefing Tuesday about what to expect under the government’s Critical Election Incident Public Protocol, a panel of five senior civil servants responsible for assessing threats after the election is called. 

A public announcement would only be made as a “last resort” because too many of them would be “in itself a disruption to the election,” said a government official who cannot be named because the briefing was not for attribution. They added the panel operates on consensus, so unanimity needs to be reached before any statement is made public.

“If there is no agreement, there is no announcement.”

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The panel includes the clerk of the Privy Council, the prime minister’s national security and intelligence advisor, and the deputy ministers of justice, public safety, and foreign affairs. 

Panel members have been meeting irregularly in Ottawa to run through simulated emergency situations. The practice scenarios have included mock incidents of blackmail against political candidates, cyberhacking, and the spread of disinformation campaigns that involve manipulated videos known as “deepfakes.”

Blueprints of the plan were unveiled earlier this year amid international concerns about foreign actors interfering in democratic elections.

An “extraordinary” incident comparable to campaign emails leaked days before the French presidential election would trigger the protocol, officials said.

But officials said domestic interference campaigns could also draw the attention of the panel if they’re secretive and involve criminal acts.

Officials were asked what the panel would do with a situation similar to “Pizzagate” — the discredited conspiracy theory that attempted to smear 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with a bogus claim she ran a child sex ring out of a Washington pizza shop.

If a Canadian riff of “Pizzagate” were to arise and pick up enough traction to sway an election, the panel could be called to weigh in on the incident, the government official said.

“In that particular incidence, my hope would be that it would be so thoroughly debunked that it wouldn’t reach the threshold.”

In March, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer missed an opportunity to immediately debunk the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory during a public town hall. He later explained he “didn’t hear” the reference. His office later followed up saying the Conservative leader doesn’t “keep up with paranoid, American alt-right conspiracy theories.”

Despite some politicians such as Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland claiming foreign interference will be “very likely” in the upcoming election, a government official told reporters there are no direct threats on their radar so far.

“At this time we haven’t seen direct threats to the 2019 general election,” the official said.

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