CSIS knew of looming Air India attack: witnesses
CTV.ca News Staff
A top terrorism expert with Canada's spy service had information about the 1985 Air India bombing just days before it occurred, two witnesses testified on Thursday.
Former justice department lawyer Graham Pinos says he was told by a senior intelligence officer that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) feared that Sikh extremists would likely blow up a plane at some point.
The officer in question was Mel Deschenes, then head of counter-terrorism for the spy service.
"An element of Sikh extremists was in the Indian community in Canada and ... he perceived them as being dangerous and likely to bring a plane down," Pinos told a public inquiry.
Pinos said Deschenes did not specify that Flight 182 was the target. However, "He did tell me he was afraid of a plane being taken out of the air, or in his words, blown out of the air," said Pinos.
When the attack on Flight 182 actually occurred off the coast of Ireland four days later, Pinos said his immediate reaction was: "Holy expletive. They knew, they knew. I had a distinct impression that they knew something was going to happen."
Pinos and Deschenes had been in Los Angeles for a U.S. court proceeding related to the shooting of the Turkish diplomat. Canadian and American authorities had been collaborating in tracking Armenian extremists.
Pinos said Deschenes told him the Armenians were far from the worst worry facing CSIS. "The real problem is something else,'' Pinos quoted the CSIS man as saying.
Michael Anne MacDonald, a former Ontario government prosecutor who also had dealings with Deschenes, said Thursday that she, too, felt CSIS had advance information.
She said Deschenes told her that he had to deal with an urgent Sikh terrorism case just days before the bombing occurred.
When MacDonald heard that the plane had blown up, she said she remembered Deschenes's words: "I thought, even when they know something is going to happen they can't stop it."
Tracey McCann, the federal government's lawyer, said the federal government doesn't believe the recollections of the two witnesses are accurate.
Deschenes is now elderly with a failing memory and he is not expected to testify at the inquiry, according to the inquiry lawyers.
But in a written statement in 1988, Deschenes contradicted the claims of advance warning. He insisted that, although Sikh terrorism was a serious concern to CSIS, there was no specific intelligence indicating a particular plane would be targeted.
Deschenes said he left Los Angeles because the court hearings there were wrapping up, and he pointed to travel records showing he didn't go to Vancouver but returned home to Ottawa.
He insisted, as other police and security officials have done for years, that there was no advance intelligence to indicate a particular Air India plane had been targeted for a particular date.
"It is true that Sikh extremism was becoming an increasing concern at the time, but I was certainly not aware of any specific or immediate threat," he wrote.
"My reason for returning before the rest of the Canadian contingent was that I had no reason to stay . . . It is also very possible that I may have invoked a work-related pretext to explain my departure to those who opted for the California sun."
Other documents filed with the inquiry indicate that, when Flight 182 went down on a Sunday morning, Deschenes wasn't called into work because his colleagues didn't realize he was back in Ottawa. It took him several tries by phone to reach a subordinate who could brief him, after which he headed for the office.
With files from the Canadian Press