|Mar. 18, 2005. 07:02 AM|
Probe hampered in many ways
Policy of destroying tapes cited
Ill-equipped, ill-prepared and looking for the wrong target. In 1985, Canada's fledgling security agency — the Canadian Security Intelligence Service — was preoccupied with sniffing out Soviet spies and rooting out subversion.Probing possible terror attacks was down the list of priorities for CSIS — until a bomb blew Air-India Flight 182 out of the sky on June 23, 1985."It definitely was a Cold War agency. ... They were chasing the Soviet Bloc, Chinese agents and Cubans, which had been their principal business," said Wesley Wark, an intelligence specialist who teaches at the University of Toronto. Yesterday, Wark and other experts painted a picture of an investigation hobbled by serious missteps, including turf battles with the RCMP, language barriers (CSIS didn't have Punjabi translators) and the destruction of more than 100 tapes containing conversations by a key figure in the investigation secretly recorded by investigators.On Wednesday, Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, both of British Columbia, were found not guilty in two 1985 Air-India bombings. The June 23 bombing of Flight 182 killed 329 people, 278 of whom were Canadian. The two were also charged with an explosion at Narita airport near Tokyo 54 minutes earlier that killed two baggage handlers moving luggage to another Air-India plane.In handing down the acquittals, Justice Ian Josephson told British Columbia Supreme Court the bombings were "cruel acts of terrorism, acts which cry out for justice."Justice is not achieved, however, if persons are convicted on anything less than the requisite standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Despite what appears to have been the best and most earnest of efforts by the police and the Crown, the evidence has fallen markedly short of that standard." In the wake of the acquittals, fresh questions are being raised about those early mistakes, and about whether CSIS is better equipped today to probe terror threats.One practice that hasn't changed is that of erasing or shredding transcripts and tapes or recorded wiretaps, which Josephson said amounted to "unacceptable negligence" in the Air-India case.Just three months ago, a Montreal judge told government lawyers it was "totally unacceptable" that CSIS had destroyed the original notes of interviews with terrorism suspect Adil Charkaoui.During the 2001 trial of former Canadian resident Ahmed Ressam, the so-called millennium bomber who was convicted in the U.S. of plotting to blow up the Los Angeles airport, U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour said he was "very troubled that the tape recordings (from CSIS) don't exist anymore." He added: "Apparently, this is the Canadian way of doing things."Dave Hayer, a Liberal member of the British Columbia legislature, is among those who want that practice to change.Hayer's father, a well-known Vancouver newspaper publisher, was assassinated after agreeing to be a witness in the Air-India case. No one has been arrested for the murder. "We have to look at new legislation that will allow CSIS evidence to be used and kept confidential," Hayer said. The agency, however, says it collects intelligence, not evidence.Ideally, CSIS should stay out of the criminal courtroom, says agency spokesperson Barbara Campion.Former CSIS director Reid Morden also cautioned against blurring the lines between the jobs of the RCMP and CSIS when it comes to security investigations. "I don't see the policy needs changing because the basic thesis behind it remains valid," says Morden.One of the fundamental issues when creating the CSIS Act was to ensure a balance between personal rights and security and guard against abuses of power, and that's been achieved, Morden said.CSIS was formed in 1984 and given responsibility for domestic intelligence, a job that used to belong to the RCMP. Among its tasks was counter-terrorism, but it was a job that existed largely on paper with few resources."The priority wasn't as great. Canada had never had a serious terrorist act," said Ron Atkey, who was the first head of the Security Intelligence Review Agency, the CSIS watchdog."Air-India was the wake-up call, not only for CSIS but for the government in terms of priorities. ... After Air-India, it was much easier to get money to develop programs for anti-terrorism," said Atkey, now a lawyer in Toronto.But the downing of the Air-India Boeing 747 happened at the worst possible time for CSIS, Wark said."We have an immature agency just born with ... a very limited capacity to study Sikh terrorism," he said. "There were a lot of rules of the road still be to be written about how CSIS was going to function as a separate civilian intelligence service," he said.There was no policy on how CSIS should co-operate with the RCMP, for example, a shortfall that led to turf battles and a reluctance by intelligence agents to share information with the Mounties.That was one problem cited by the Security Intelligence Review Committee when it investigated the role of CSIS in the Air-India bombing in 1992. Still, while it concluded mistakes were made, none had any "serious detrimental effect" on the long investigation.The committee found that CSIS intelligence reports warned "that something big or spectacular was about to happen," but said the agency had no firm details upon which to take action."The service was not in a position to predict that the Air-India flight was to be the target of a terrorist bomb," the committee concluded in its report. And yet controversy still swirls about whether CSIS officials had enough information to prevent the bombings. That lingering question, which arose in 2003 due to allegations that CSIS had a source close to the plot, prompted the agency to take the rare step of issuing a news release in June, 2003, disavowing any advance knowledge of the terror scheme."If CSIS had had any information which could have prevented the disaster, it would have provided it to the Government and the police," the agency said. "Any suggestion that CSIS would not have done everything in its power to prevent such a tragedy from occurring is absurd."Despite the many problems, Wark says, CSIS came "tantalizing close" to piecing the plot together. Investigators had focused on Talwinder Singh Parmar, a suspected mastermind, who would later be killed in India in 1992. They had tapped his telephones and were tailing him in British Columbia."They were following some of the right people. They were aware that something might happen, but they didn't get close enough," Wark said.Now, Atkey says, CSIS has evolved into a "professional agency" that is much better at working with the RCMP and other police forces."I think they co-operate in the anti-terrorism field ... they're much more willing to operate as a team rather than in silos, so they've come a long way." Still, Wark sees merit in holding a public inquiry into the Air-India disaster, not to rehash the investigations done two decades earlier, but to assess whether Canada's intelligence and security agencies have changed their ways and could properly cope with a terror threat today.