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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Angry Canadian legislators accused the country's spy chief on Monday of making a huge mistake by alleging some politicians were under the influence of foreign governments, with one parliamentarian demanding he name the "traitors to the nation".
Richard Fadden, head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), prompted an uproar last month when he said in televised remarks that ministers in two of the 10 provinces were under "the general influence of a foreign government".
Fadden also suggested China was one of the nations involved. The comments were widely seen as controversial as Canada encourages large-scale immigration and has a substantial ethnic and foreign-born population.
The House of Commons public security committee convened a special two-hour session to grill Fadden, who said that while he regretted his remarks had become public, he stood by them.
Legislators variously told Fadden he was incompetent and irresponsible, saying his words had triggered suspicions about countless politicians across Canada.
"Who are the traitors in the current political class, Mr Fadden?" demanded an incandescent Maria Mourani, a legislator of Lebanese descent from the opposition Bloc Quebecois.
Fadden described her words as totally inappropriate, saying there was no question of treason.
"You don't use the word 'traitor' but I'll say it ... I'm giving you a chance to tell us. Who are these ministers who are traitors to the nation?" Mourani fired back.
The nationally televised session was unprecedented for Canada, where the CSIS head usually keeps a very low profile.
Although the office of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper denied it had known about the issue of foreign influence before it became public, Fadden said he had discussed it in general terms with Harper's national security adviser early this year.
Fadden said CSIS would issue a report on its investigation into the politicians in question within the next month.
"You've created great consternation and anxiety, unwarranted suspicion and an unfounded stain on ... every provincial cabinet minister in the country. Do you acknowledge that?" asked Don Davies of the left-leaning New Democrats.
"No sir, I do not," said Fadden, adding he had not breached national security because CSIS often warns of foreign threats and because he had not named the politicians in question.
Davies retorted: "If you had said left-handed cabinet ministers of Romanian descent, would you still take the position that you didn't specify precisely who it was?"
Fadden apologized repeatedly for the fact his comments had become public, saying that although he made them in a question and answer session following a formal speech that was being taped, he forgot he was being filmed and did not realize his words would be broadcast.
Even legislators from the ruling Conservative Party, which strongly backs the forces of law and order, were unimpressed.
"Why is it appropriate for (you) to tell an audience at a black-tie event information that pertains to your job before you've informed the chain of command?" asked Kelly Block.
Fadden brushed off suggestions that he resign, a move that University of Toronto intelligence expert Wesley Wark said left the CSIS chief's fate up to Prime Minister Harper.
"There's an ethical and a political principle about how CSIS directors behave ... they cannot allow their services to be used to engage in any form of political warfare in terms of putting out information in the public domain before a government decision has been made," Wark told reporters.
In response, Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas said: "Mr. Fadden had an opportunity to clarify his comments, and his testimony speaks for itself."
Additional reporting by Louise Egan; editing by Rob Wilson