Former Canadian envoy to Washington defends work pitching for Palantir

Andy Blatchford

OTTAWA — Canada’s former ambassador to the United States says he’s done nothing wrong in his senior role with Peter Thiel's data-analytics firm Palantir amid questions about whether he has been lobbying the top ranks of the Trudeau government.

Charlie Angus, an NDP member of Parliament, told POLITICO he was drafting a letter to the federal lobbying regulator following suggestions David MacNaughton has been engaging Canadian officials on how Palantir can help with the Covid-19 response. MacNaughton became president of Palantir’s Canadian branch shortly after leaving his envoy’s post last summer.

Neither MacNaughton nor Palantir are registered as lobbyists with the Canadian government and, as a former designated public office holder, he is subject to a five-year prohibition on lobbying activities, said Manon Dion, a spokesperson for Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Bélanger.

Dion added that former public office holders may also be restricted or prohibited from providing advice to governments under the Conflict of Interest Act.

But MacNaughton told POLITICO that he sought advice when he left the ambassador’s job from both the federal lobbying and conflict of interest and ethics watchdogs.

“I received guidance and I followed it,” MacNaughton said in an interview. “And I wanted to make sure I wasn’t either offside the letter of the law or the spirit of the law.”

A conviction for an offense under the Lobbying Act may lead to fines, imprisonment and a lobbying ban, while a breach of the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct may result in a report to Parliament, according to the regulator's website.

Word of MacNaughton’s interactions with government officials surfaced last week in a report by The Logic. The news outlet said MacNaughton told a business audience during a recent teleconference about the company’s discussions with Ottawa as well as several provinces about their responses to Covid-19.

Palantir’s engagement with Ottawa comes as the government searches for tech-based solutions to help address the Covid-19 pandemic. Talk of employing new tracking and data-related applications has raised concerns with privacy advocates.

“I think this situation is appalling,” Angus, a member of the House of Commons ethics committee, said in an interview of MacNaughton’s ongoing engagement with the Trudeau government. “We are certainly going to be reaching out to the lobbying commissioner on this issue in terms of the appropriateness of a former ambassador, who’s just stepped down, actively working for a very, very powerful company in the corridors of Ottawa.”

Angus' letter, which will be sent Friday, urges the commissioner to probe whether MacNaughton has been acting as a lobbyist for Palantir's Canadian interests.

"I believe that clarification is needed on this matter," Angus wrote in the letter, which he provided to POLITICO. "Mr. McNaughton and public officials that Palantir has spoken to should be able to make clear to you that Mr. McNaughton has had no role in discussions with government."

Federal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains was asked late last week at a parliamentary committee if MacNaughton was advising the federal government on the pandemic.

“I'm not aware of any formal commitment from him,” Bains said in his reply to Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner. “I know that he is engaged with many, including me, in giving us solutions and ideas on how to help Canadians. I speak to him on a regular basis.”

When pressed again, Bains added: “I speak to him as a friend. He is someone who has guided me through many personal issues with my kids and my family.”

Palantir is a surveillance company co-founded by Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire and supporter of President Donald Trump. The firm has been pitching its big-data technology to governments in different countries since the start of the outbreak. In the United Kingdom, for example, Palantir Technologies UK is one of the government's partners in its Covid-19 reponse.

MacNaughton said he hasn’t “lobbied anybody as defined by the Act.” Palantir’s engagement, he added, has focused on the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

And he still “absolutely” talks to people in the Prime Minister’s Office about broader public policy issues and politics.

“But have I gone and tried to sell Palantir to the PMO? No,” he said, insisting a decision will ultimately be made by the Public Health Agency of Canada anyway.

“Do I talk to Nav Bains and do I talk to [Finance] Minister [Bill] Morneau and everything? Sure I do. I talk to them about what ... we think is going to happen in terms of Canada-U.S. relations.”

He stressed that their discussions have nothing to do with Palantir.

“I’m not going to stop talking to people about public policy issues, I’ve been doing that all my life. I’m not going to stop now,” MacNaughton said.

The company has done business with the Canadian government in the past. In March 2019, Palantir was awarded a C$997,000 contract with the Department of National Defence to develop software.

MacNaughton has close ties to Justin Trudeau and served as co-chairman of the prime minister’s campaign efforts in Ontario in 2015.

As ambassador, he was a central figure for Canada during the tumultuous USMCA negotiations. When he announced his departure, Trudeau called MacNaughton Canada's "point person ... in the most difficult and uncertain trade negotiations this country has ever faced."

Angus said he has concerns about MacNaughton’s influence in Ottawa as well as the company he now works for.

“We have an ambassador to the United States — who plays a staggeringly important role and has numerous contacts — who steps down and then goes to work for a company that I think has a very questionable reputation in terms of their commitment to democracy,” Angus said.

Angus said he would also like to see Palantir called to testify before the House of Commons ethics committee on the impacts of facial recognition on privacy and civic rights.

MacNaughton said it’s “entirely legitimate for people to have privacy concerns,” adding he welcomed questions from MPs of any political party.

He also shared some details on Palantir’s pitch to Canada.

MacNaughton argued Palantir’s roots in the defense and security fields means it has robust data protection and privacy built into the software. He insisted the company doesn’t own the data, nor will it sell the information to anyone else.

The company has been emphasizing its work to help governments around the world obtain better data on which they can make decisions.

For Canada, Palantir insists it will keep Canadians safer, help governments deliver better services for less money and make industry more productive and more competitive

Palantir is also prepared to do the work "pro bono," he said.