Beware Russians on campus

My university has pretty much shut down this week due to coronavirus, which gives me an opportunity to talk about some non-virus-related stuff to provide readers with a bit of a distraction. Among these is a newly issued report by the Canadian National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), whose contents make me think that closing down our universities may be a good thing as it will safeguard national security against the rampant ‘ foreign interference’ apparently prevalent on campus. Every cloud, and all that!

I’m always a bit suspicious of terms like ‘foreign interference’, as it’s not obvious what they mean and people are really bad at defining them. Interference often seems to mean no more than that people are trying to influence us, which is a strange thing to deem a national security issue since influencing one another is what everybody does every time they interact with anybody else. Seen that way, the only way to stop foreign interference is to shut down all contact with foreign countries (which is perhaps where coronavirus is leading us).

The NSICOP defines foreign interference as being the same as the term ‘foreign influence’ used in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, i.e. activities that are ‘detrimental to the interests of Canada and are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any  person.’ This immediately raises my hackles, as it makes it clear that interference is indeed a synonym of influence, but does at least clear up a couple of points.

First, open efforts to influence should not be considered interference. That should immediately rule out any complaints about foreign agencies operating openly. Unfortunately, the report then ignores its own definition by including complaints about China’s Confucius Institutes, which are anything but ‘clandestine’, thus making it obvious that its definition is rather flexible, and as such a little suspect.

Second, to amount to interference, activity must be detrimental to national interests. But that raises some interesting questions. What are the national interests? And who defines them? The reality is that national interests are decidedly subjective. One person might think that China is a serious threat and that our country needs to take a hard line against it. But another might think that our interests would be best served by allying with China. The first person might say that allowing Huawei to operate here is dangerous; the second that it is a good idea. Does that mean that somebody who tries to convince you of the latter position is acting in a way ‘detrimental to the interests of Canada’ and so helping the Chinese ‘interfere’ in our affairs? Or simply that they have a different understanding of those interests? Simply put, just because a foreign country tries to influence you to change your policy in a way which is deemed by those in authority to be contrary to national interests, it doesn’t mean that it actually is harming those interests. By ‘interfering’ they could actually be helping us redefine our interests in a way that is beneficial. Who can tell?

In short, foreign interference is a slippery term best avoided. But thanks to Russiagate it has become de rigueur, to the extent that the NSICOP report claims that foreign interference and espionage are ‘the greatest threat to Canadian prosperity and national interests’. I find that rather reassuring. For if that’s our greatest worry, we must be really safe.

So who are these foreign interferers? The report identifies two: China and Russia. Actually, that’s not strictly speaking true, as there are redacted paragraphs which identify others, but since they’re redacted we don’t know who they are. And that raises the question of why they’ve been removed. Is it because the committee thinks it will harm our relations with those countries if they are publicly identified? Are they supposed allies? If that’s the case, then producing a report identifying just two countries when there are really many more is rather disingenuous.

Beyond that, most of the report focuses on China, with just a little bit about Russia, but I’ll focus here on the latter, as Russia is what this blog generally deals with.

According to the report, ‘The Russian Federation engages in foreign interference activities across Canada’s political system with the objective of influencing government decision-making and swaying public opinion’. ‘Influencing government decision-making and swaying public opinion’ – we can’t have that now, can we? Come on guys, what do you think every country with whom we have dealings is trying to do, if not influence government decision-making and public opinion? I assume that the difference is that Russia is somehow doing this in a ‘clandestine’ way, but sadly the report doesn’t tell us much about how this involves, because thereafter the section in question is almost entirely redacted.

There is one exception, though. For we are told, ‘CSIS assesses that the PRC and the Russian Federation are the primary threat actors on Canadian campuses.’  Unfortunately, after that we have yet another redacted section saying merely, ‘This paragraph was revised to remove injurious or privileged information. This paragraph describes Russian foreign interference activities on Canadian campuses.’

I’d love to know what this is talking about, and why the compilers of the report felt that they couldn’t tell us what exactly it is. Strangely, they have no compunctions about then providing a lot of detail about the allegedly malicious on-campus behaviour of the Chinese. So, what is it that the Russians are doing in universities that we can’t know about? Surely, the Russians know what they’re doing, so what security benefit is there in hiding this information? Is it that the allegations are potentially libellous? Or what? Maybe there’s something to this all, but maybe not. At any rate, as somebody who works on a campus and deals with Russia, I don’t find it entirely convincing.

A clue as to what’s involved perhaps lies in the previous paragraph which tell us the following:

Foreign interference activity seeks to influence public opinion and debate, thereby obstructing fundamental freedoms such as speech and assembly, and the independence of academic institutions. In trying to influence public debate at academic institutions, foreign states may sponsor specific events to shape discuss rather than engage in free debate and dialogue.

This is another one of the situations when I feel really stupid, because I can’t for the life of me understand why seeking to influence public opinion obstructs fundamental freedoms of speech of assembly, let alone the independence of academic institutions. Nor can I fathom why sponsoring events suppresses free debate and dialogue. In fact, it seems to me to be the other way around. Frankly, this is all more than a little odd.

I’m not naïve. I realize perfectly well that Canada is a target of foreign espionage, especially from China and Russia, and that foreign powers can try to influence us in manipulative ways. But the interference talk has gotten rather out of control, in my opinion, and it seems to be founded on some rather shaky premises. Moreover, it runs a severe danger of labelling as malign things which are actually quite necessary, for instance a consideration of other countries’ perspectives when determining our own foreign policy. And when the state sees fit to warn us that certain actors are hostile, but won’t tell us why or how, while simultaneously hiding the names of other hostile parties, I don’t see why I should take its reporting desperately seriously. All I hear is, ‘Beware of Russians on campus. We can’t say why. Just trust us.’ Phooey to that, I say.

16 thoughts on “Beware Russians on campus”

  1. “Unfortunately, after that we have yet another redacted section saying merely, ‘This paragraph was revised to remove injurious or privileged information. This paragraph describes Russian foreign interference activities on Canadian campuses.’”


    Which reminds me of:

    “All the officer patients in the ward were forced to censor letters written by all the enlisted-men patients, who were kept in residence in wards of their own. It was a monotonous job, and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers. After the first day he had no curiosity at all. To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but “a”, “an” and “the”. That erected more dynamic intralinear tensions, he felt, and in just about every case left a message far more universal. Soon he was proscribing parts of salutations and signatures and leaving the text untouched. One time he blacked out all but the salutation “Dear Mary” from a letter, and at the bottom he wrote, “I yearn for you tragically. R. O. Shipman, Chaplain, U.S. Army.” R. O. Shipman was the group chaplain’s name.

    When he had exhausted all possibilities in the letters, he began attacking the names and addresses on the envelopes, obliterating whole homes and streets, annihilating entire metropolises with careless flicks of his wrist as though he were God…”


  2. “Foreign interference activity seeks to influence public opinion and debate, thereby obstructing fundamental freedoms such as speech and assembly…” From the unpublished notebooks of George Orwell!


  3. P.S. – did you hear the latest news from the U.S., Professor?
    Every TV channel is now “Coronavirus Channel” 24/7.
    Every school is to be renamed “Coronavirus School”.
    Every shopping mall will be “Coronavirus Mall”.

    Coronavirus is also planning to run for President of the U.S. Election is a shoe-in, and we will then have President Coronavirus!


    1. Like, I know this is a joke and all, but #1 (Coronavirus Channel) is almost accurate. Especially in the case of CNN (which unfortunately is playing on no less than 2 TVs at any given time in the house where I’m isolating).


      1. No, thank goodness! My university is shuttered; it sent all students into [informal] isolation as part of social distancing policy. I appreciate your concern, though!


    2. and we will then have President Coronavirus!
      which will be the (lucky one?) seizing the moment once again?

      It’s true I hardly payed any attention on earlier comparative events. But this is interesting. Couldn’t China have shut down reports? It couldn’t have as member of the UN’s Who? Loads of data available for the medical trade in this case. To indirectly refer to Lytt’s Catch 22 reference. Wasn’t it?

      Otherwise President Coronovirus will be the same as before? No?


    3. Russian Corona Virus Meddling in US:

      When it comes to Russia, JHU is an out of control academic institution, akin to what The NYT and some others are in journalism.


    1. I saw that. Got a laugh from me, especially since it’s the only Russiagate case that actually involves Russians that got into the court.

      Have you seen NYT article about that though? A magnificent example of telling that red is blue. The rest of MSM are mostly no better too.


  4. Strangely, they have no compunctions about then providing a lot of detail about the allegedly malicious on-campus behaviour of the Chinese.

    Babbling, if I may? I met Chinese students way back when I lived in London. Politically i was a nitwit, Put another way, more an adherent to a different kind of basic believe, big politics are solidly grounded in the ‘games people play’. I had at that point fled a town’s university where the diverse political parties managed to dominate the seminars.

    The only thing I recall of my encounters was, I guess, quite possibly rather stupid question I asked my Chinese co-students: I do not recall the precise question and surely I may not have asked in a somewhat politically correct way. What I asked was what had happened to their Confucius tradition and or what were their ideas about Lao-Tze?


  5. Please forgive me for plug, but I just finished posting the final segment of this historical piece about WWII and Hitler’s “surprise attack” against the USSR.

    Executive summary: Sadulaev’s thesis is that Soviet leadership was genuinely caught by surprise, by Barbarossa. Because they believed that Hitler’s next target was Iran, and then India; and only after that, the USSR.
    Sadulaev’s hypothesis sounds convincing to me, and actually explains a lot of known facts. But then I’m not a trained historian, so I don’t know…


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