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How fallout from top secret documents found at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort could affect Canada

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Vincent Rigby saw a lot over his 30-year career in public service, much of it working with some of the most sensitive and secret intelligence issues in Canada.

But for all that experience, the former national security adviser to the prime minister found himself in a state of disbelief in August when he saw the FBI search the home of former U.S. president Donald Trump and leave with boxes of highly sensitive, classified information.

“I was absolutely stunned that based on the media reports that I saw, he had in his possession what are reputed to be very, very sensitive documents and it’s just something that is unheard of,” Rigby said in an interview with The Fifth Estate.

“Just disbelief that somebody could take those out of the White House, stick them, I presume, on a plane or in a truck, drive them down to Florida and then put them … effectively in a basement, it’s just disbelief,” said Rigby, now a visiting professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University in Montreal.

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The material has set off a damage assessment by the U.S. intelligence community as it tries to understand what classified information was contained in the documents the former president had in his possession.

But the concern extends beyond just U.S. intelligence. The United States is a member of the Five Eyes, an intelligence-sharing organization that also includes Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Vincent Rigby, a former national security and intelligence adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, says that because Canada shares so much intelligence with the United States, Canadian agencies should be concerned about the material recovered from the Florida home of former U.S. president Donald Trump. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

Rigby said any potential security breach for one member has a ripple effect within the entire group and would also reverberate through the halls of the dozen or so agencies that share and collect intelligence in Canada, including the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).

“In a worst-case scenario, there’s Canadian intelligence, that’s a direct implication,” said Rigby who played a critical role in Canada’s intelligence community as the national security and intelligence adviser to the prime minister from January 2020 until his retirement in September 2021.

Unprecedented search

On Aug. 8, the FBI took the unprecedented step of searching the home of a former U.S. president. With heavily armed Secret Service agents standing guard outside, teams of FBI agents searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property.

During the August search, the FBI combed through the posh club, which doubles as Trump’s primary residence, recovering 100 documents with classification markings, including 18 marked top secret, 54 marked secret and 31 marked confidential. The documents were found in Trump’s bedroom, an office and a first-floor storage room, according to court filings.

According to an inventory filed as part of a legal battle over the documents recovered, the material found includes some of the highest classification levels of U.S. intelligence, including material that’s highly compartmentalized and only available to a select few.

The FBI says it took about 11,000 documents, including roughly 100 with classification markings found in a storage room and an office, while serving a court-authorized search warrant at the home on Aug. 8. (Getty Images)

The search was part of an investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department into the storing and mishandling of national defence information and possible obstruction of justice.

The probe was sparked by an almost year-long effort by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to recover presidential records removed by Trump after he left the White House in January 2021.

In January 2022, Trump’s lawyers returned 15 boxes of records. In those boxes, archivists found more than 100 documents with classification markings, comprising more than 700 pages, according to a letter from NARA to Trump’s lawyers.

‘Inappropriate’ to comment, government says

It’s not clear if any intelligence directly related to Canada is among the documents. The Fifth Estate contacted CSIS, Global Affairs, Public Safety Canada and the minister responsible for public safety, Marco Mendicino, for comment.

Instead, The Fifth Estate was sent a response from the Privy Council Office, which reports directly to the Prime Minister’s Office.

“At this stage, it would be inappropriate for the Government of Canada to comment on an ongoing U.S. law-enforcement investigation,” the Privy Council Office said in the statement.

“Should the Government of Canada be made aware of any security breaches, appropriate protocols and procedures are in place to deal with them.”

An aerial view of a posh resort surrounded by palm trees with a swimming pool at the centre.
An aerial view shows former U.S. president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home on on Aug. 15 in Palm Beach, Fla. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

But experts say that because Canada relies so heavily on the U.S. for intelligence, any impact on its ability to collect information would be felt north of the border.

“Knowing the prime minister, he may well have reached out and had some pointed questions, if not directly from him, from a staff in the Prime Minister’s Office: ‘Do we need to be concerned? Are there any issues here? What’s at stake?'” said Rigby, cautioning that he doesn’t know if the prime minister has been briefed.

As national security and intelligence adviser, he was also responsible for co-ordinating the security intelligence community within Canada and liaising with allies, especially the U.S.

Rigby said if he was still in Ottawa in his former job, he’d likely be putting a call into his counterpart, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, “to say: ‘OK, can you just give us a little bit of insight here as to what are these documents? And should we be concerned from a Canadian perspective?'”

Implications for Canada

The concern isn’t theoretical, in part because what is reportedly in at least some of the documents relates directly to a current national security issue in Canada.

The Washington Post reported that some of the material recovered “described highly sensitive intelligence work aimed at China.”

Chinese interference in Canadian elections and other national security concerns have been top of mind in Ottawa recently. At a meeting of the procedure and house affairs committee earlier this month, Michelle Tessier, deputy director of operations for CSIS, told members of Parliament about their concern about the Chinese Communist Party.

“They are an actor in foreign interference,” Tessier told the committee on Nov. 1, “and we have said that publicly and I can state again that we are concerned about the activities regarding threats against the security of Canada, including foreign interference by the Chinese Communist Party.”

A seven-page inventory filed by the FBI in U.S. federal court in Florida lists the contents of the boxes recovered during the search of Mar-a-Lago in August. (U.S. Department of Justice)

Rigby said the activities China could be involved in range from foreign interference and espionage to disinformation, misinformation, cyberattacks and more.

He said China is also very aggressive in its intelligence collection so it would likely target information in Trump’s possession to help it understand what the U.S. knows about its operations.

“If this intelligence is not stored properly if it’s sitting in a basement room somewhere without being properly locked up, it can potentially be grabbed by foreign intelligence agencies. And it can put not just the U.S. at heightened risk, but the Five Eyes, our allies and Canada included.”

Artur Wilczynski, a former associate deputy chief of signals intelligence at the Communications Security Establishment, says information shared among the Five Eyes, like intelligence on China, is essential for Canadian security interests. Losing access to that would have an effect on the ability to manage risk, he said.

“If some of that information that’s essential to make decisions is no longer available because sources are compromised, then you do not have all the information that you should have in order to make an informed decision,” Wilczynski told The Fifth Estate.

Artur Wilczynski, a former associate deputy chief of signals intelligence at the Communications Security Establishment, says information shared among the Five Eyes, like intelligence on China, is essential for Canadian security interests. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

A major reason so many in the intelligence community worry that information could be compromised is that it was stored at Trump’s home in Florida, the private club known as Mar-a-Lago.

The FBI expressed concern that the facility lacked a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, also known as an SCIF, a specially designed area to store and view top secret information.

Mar-a-Lago is well-known among intelligence experts for substandard security, which has seen a host of dubious characters gain access over the years, including a woman posing as a wealthy heiress (who had among other documents, a forged Canadian passport) and a Chinese national who was found to have numerous electronic surveillance and computer hacking devices.

 

How to steal top secret information

A former CIA case officer tells The Fifth Estate how he would go about infiltrating former U.S. president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club to try to gain access to top secret information stored there.

That easy accessibility makes it a prime target for foreign intelligence agencies to try to gain access to the former president and any material he may have in his possession, says Peter Strzok, a former FBI deputy director for counterintelligence.

“I find it hard to believe that certainly when you think about China, when you think about Russia, that they would not have extended extraordinary efforts which continue to this day to get access to Trump,” Strzok told The Fifth Estate.

“Whether that is people close to him, whether that is his electronics, his email, his texts, whether that is the places that he frequents, that he lives, those efforts were significant in all likelihood, and continue to be significant.”

Easy accessibility of Mar-a-Lago makes it a prime target for foreign intelligence agencies to try to gain access to the former president and any material he may have in his possession, Peter Strzok, a former FBI deputy director for counterintelligence, told The Fifth Estate. (Harvey Cashore/CBC)

Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada and a vocal Trump critic, was shocked but not surprised when he heard about the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago.

“This is in a resort property in Florida … a place where people go to have weddings and parties, and we have the highest level of security documents sitting around, laying around the house. I mean, this is absolutely appalling.”

Exposing sources

A major concern would be the fallout for human sources — the spies themselves — if the top secret material found in Trump’s possession fell into the hands of adversaries, said Douglas London, a former case officer with the CIA.

London, who also worked in counterterrorism operations, said a damage assessment of the material Trump had would look at whether any sources or methods of collection had been affected.

He said the process can be exhaustive and operations could be stopped if agencies feel like the people risking their lives to gather information were at risk.

Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada and a vocal Trump critic, was shocked but not surprised when he heard about the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

“These are not necessarily mercenary folks, these are people who often refuse money or material compensation because they’re doing it for their children, their future. And those are the people that will pay the dearest consequences if they’re compromised,” London said.

Those consequences, he said, are severe.

“You’re talking about police, state surveillance, states like Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and even some countries that we deal with as partners across the world who are led by autocrats who are rather brutal and tend not just to kill the agent or the source, but to retaliate against their family and their networks and their friends.”

Rigby agrees the risks posed by the documents found at Mar-a-Lago could potentially have life-or-death consequences for those on the front lines of intelligence gathering.

“They could end up in prison for a long time, or in some cases, extreme cases, they are executed. It’s a very dangerous business, a very dangerous business.”

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Canada Premiers to hold virtual news conference on struggling children’s hospitals

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Canada’s premiers plan to hold a news conference in Winnipeg today as children’s hospitals struggle to deal with a wave of child illnesses.

Hospitals across the country have been cancelling some surgeries and appointments as they redirect staff amid an increase in pediatric patients.

Admissions are surging under a triple-threat of respiratory syncytial virus, influenza and COVID-19 at a time when the health-care system is grappling with record numbers of job vacancies.

In Ottawa, two teams of Canadian Red Cross personnel are working rotating overnight shifts at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in support of its clinical-care team, while some patients have been redirected to adult health-care facilities.

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A pediatric hospice in Calgary has been temporarily closed as staff are diverted to a children’s hospital.

Members of the Alberta Medical Association have sent a letter to the province’s acting chief medical officer of health calling for stronger public health measures to prevent the spread of the illnesses, including increasing public messaging about the safety of vaccines, encouraging flu and COVID-19 vaccines, and temporarily requiring masks in schools.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2022.

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As nature talks unfold, here’s what ’30 by 30′ conservation could mean in Canada

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was unequivocal Wednesday when asked if Canada was going to meet its goal to protect one-quarter of all Canadian land and oceans by 2025.

“I am happy to say that we are going to meet our ’25 by 25′ target,” Trudeau said during a small roundtable interview with journalists on the sidelines of the nature talks taking place in Montreal.

That goal, which would already mean protecting 1.2 million more square kilometres of land, is just the interim stop on the way to conserving 30 per cent by 2030 — the marquee target Canada is pushing for during the COP15 biodiversity conference.

But what does the conservation of land or waterways actually mean?

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“When we talk about protecting land and water, we’re talking about looking at a whole package of actions across broader landscapes,” said Carole Saint-Laurent, head of forest and lands at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The group’s definition of “protected area,” which is used by the UN convention on biodiversity, refers to a “clearly defined geographical space” that is managed by laws or regulations with the goal of the long-term protection of nature.

“It can range from areas with very strict protections to areas that are being protected or conserved,” said Saint-Laurent.

“We have to look at that entire suite of protective and restorative action in order to not only save nature, but to do so in a way that is going to help our societies. There is not one magical formula, and context is everything.”

The organization, which keeps its own global “green list” of conserved areas, lists 17 criteria for how areas can fit the definition.

Most of the criteria are centred on how the sites are managed and protected. One allows for resource extraction, hunting, recreation and tourism as long as these are both compatible with and supportive of the conservation goals outlined for the area.

In many cases, industrial activities and resource extraction are not allowed in protected areas. But that’s not always true in Canada, particularly when it involves the rights of Indigenous Peoples on their traditional territory.

In some provincial parks, mining and logging are allowed. In Ontario’s Algonquin Park, for example, logging is permitted in about two-thirds of the park area.

Canada has nearly 10 million square kilometres of terrestrial land, including inland freshwater lakes and rivers, and about 5.8 million square kilometres of marine territory.

As of December 2021, Canada had conserved 13.5 per cent of land and almost 14 per cent of marine territory. The government did it through a combination of national and provincial parks and reserves, wildlife areas, migratory bird sanctuaries, national marine conservation areas, marine protected areas and what are referred to as “other effective areas-based conservation measures.”

These can include private lands that have a management plan to protect and conserve habitats, or public or private lands where conservation isn’t the primary focus but still ends up happening.

Canadian Forces Base Shilo, in Manitoba, includes about 211 square kilometres of natural habitats maintained under an environmental protection plan run by the Department of National Defence.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada is a non-profit organization that raises funds to buy plots of land from private owners with a view to long-term conservation.

Mike Hendren, its Ontario regional vice-president, said that on such lands, management plans can include everything from nature trails to hunting — but always with conservation as the priority.

To hit “25 by 25,” Canada must further protect more than 1.2 million square kilometres of land, or approximately the size of Manitoba and Saskatchewan added together. To get to 30 per cent is to add, on top of that, land almost equivalent in size to Alberta.

The federal government would need to protect another 638,000 square kilometres of marine territory and coastlines by 2025, or an area almost three times the size of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. By 2030, another area the size of the gulf would need to be added.

Trudeau said that in a country as big and diverse as Canada, hard and fast rules about what can and can’t happen in protected areas don’t make sense.

He said there should be distinctions between areas that can’t have any activity and places where you can mine, log or hunt, as long as it is done with conservation in mind.

“There’s ability to have sort of management plans that are informed by everyone, informed by science, informed by various communities, that say, ‘yes, we’re going to protect this area and that means, no, there’s not going to be unlimited irresponsible mining going to happen,'” he said.

“But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain projects in certain places that could be the right kind of thing, or the right thing to move forward on.”

The draft text of the biodiversity framework being negotiated at COP15 is not yet clear on what kind of land and marine areas would qualify or what conservation of them would specifically mean.

It currently proposes that a substantial portion of the conserved land would need to be “strictly protected” but some areas could respect the right to economic development.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2022.

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UN Mideast refugee chief says Western funding shortfall may abandon hosting countries

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The United Nations refugee chief for the Middle East says countries hosting asylum seekers need more funding, or they’ll feel abandoned by the global community.

Ayman Gharaibeh (ay-MAHN guh-RYE-bah) says countries are pulling back their funding to help places like Lebanon and Jordan host refugees from Syria, and the lack of funds could prevent kids from being educated.

Gharaibeh says Canada is one of the few countries that isn’t pulling back funding, and he hopes Ottawa will encourage its allies to stop lowering their support.

He says the U-N is already struggling to support refugees due to inflation, a drop in donors and new conflicts that have displaced people from Ukraine and Ethiopia.

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Meanwhile, his region has only received eight per cent of the funding it has requested for winter gear, such as fuel and children’s clothing — compared to fifty-eight per cent by this time last year.

Gharaibeh says countries that are left to fend with these costs might stop co-operating in international agreements, which could cause more chaos in refugee flows.

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