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National security 'failed Air India'
Agencies came close to success but could not translate conspiracy
Peter O'Neil
Vancouver Sun

OTTAWA -- Canada's national security agencies, by coming so close to success, suffered the worst kind of intelligence failure prior to the 1985 Air India bombings, an inquiry into Canada's deadliest terrorist incident heard Monday.

"The rub here is that we probably got close to success, but not close enough," said Wesley Wark, an expert on national security issues at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies.

"And those are the worst kinds of intelligence failure, when you see the possibilities of success and you just can't get there."

The newly minted Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), created a year earlier and made up mostly of former RCMP intelligence officers, had been tracking and wiretapping alleged Air India terrorist mastermind Talwinder Singh Parmar, a B.C. resident who was killed in a 1992 gun battle.

"We were onto them. We were onto a sense of conspiracy, we understood the threat and the danger. We just couldn't translate that sufficiently through an intelligence collection program into a policy of pre-emption or prevention or doing something that could lock the conspiracy in time," Wark told Commissioner John Major, the former Supreme Court of Canada justice heading the inquiry.

He said the government failed to learn its lesson from the two bombings that left 331 people dead, most of them Canadians of Indian descent. RCMP-CSIS cooperation problems, he said, weren't fully addressed until a new cooperative agreement was struck between the two feuding agencies last year.

But Wark said he doesn't agree with the contention from some victims' family representatives that the Canadian government didn't take the issue seriously enough because the victims weren't white.

Wark's testimony came after Major expressed cautious optimism that his probe into Canada's deadliest experience with terrorism won't sink into oblivion due to government secrecy.

Major, who threatened to shut down the inquiry last month because not enough internal documents were being made public, was responding to the government's commitment Monday to release more uncensored documents to the commission and victims' families by the end of this week.

The government of India, Vancouver police, and a senior RCMP official involved in the continuing Air India probe, were consulted as Ottawa sought ways to release more information without compromising national security, government lawyer Barney Brucker told the inquiry Monday.

But he warned that excessive openness might be "potentially disastrous" by compromising important government sources in the fight against terrorism.

"It would be like switching off a light and attempting to defend ourselves in the dark," Brucker said.

Major said he's grateful the government is taking extra steps, though he said he's uncertain if bureaucrats are as willing to open up the process.

"I will have some skepticism about the troops behind you being able to follow your command."

Major resisted a plea from a lawyer for the families of some of the 331 who died as a result of the bombings.

Jacques Shore said he'd like an extra two weeks to study the documents once they are released.

But Major said he will stick to next week's scheduled one-week adjournment unless the families, after seeing what the government provides to them later this week, make a formal written request for more time. Major said he still fears that his probe could be jeopardized by continued delays.

"What I'm trying to do is have this commission stay afloat," he said.

"We've seen commissions sink below the water and accomplish nothing."

The commission, struck last year by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is attempting to find some answers for families struggling to understand why Canada's security agencies couldn't prevent the bombings, and why the RCMP has been unable to get convictions of the suspected main conspirators.

However, the commission does not have the mandate to determine who was responsible for the twin bombings. Air India flight 182, en route from Canada to the United Kingdom, blew up near the Irish coast, killing all 329 passengers and crew.

A separate bomb in a suitcase destined for an Air India flight exploded in Japan's Narita airport, killing two airport baggage handlers.

© The Vancouver Sun 2007

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