No lessons learned
Jun 14th 2007 | VANCOUVER
From The Economist print edition

Continuing “gaping holes” in Canada's security arrangements are revealed at an inquiry into the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight from Toronto

Still mourning, 27 years later

IT WAS the worst act of aerial terrorism before the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001. On June 23rd 1985 an Air India flight from Toronto was blown up by Sikh extremists off southern Ireland, killing all 329 people on board, many of them Canadian Hindus. Twenty years later a lengthy trial in Canada ended in the acquittal of two Sikh nationalists, amid revelations of infighting between the police and the intelligence service and the mysterious destruction of key wiretap evidence. Now new evidence coming out of a public inquiry has put the spotlight on a sweeping—and continuing—failure inside Canada's security services.

Pressured by victims' families, Stephen Harper's Conservative minority government launched the inquiry last year to find out what had gone wrong. During the trial it emerged that both the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), charged with watching Sikh extremists in Canada, had been aware of threats to attack Air India. Militant Sikhs around the globe had vowed to avenge the Indian army's storming of the Golden Temple of Amritsar in pursuit of armed Sikh separatists in 1984. But Canada's security services had always denied having specific knowledge of an impending Air India attack.

Over the past few weeks several witnesses testified before John Major, the retired Supreme Court judge heading the Ottawa inquiry, about a litany of lapses in security, raising questions as to whether the tragedy could have been averted. James Bartleman, head of the foreign ministry's security and intelligence bureau at the time of the bombing and now lieutenant-governor of Ontario, stunned the hearing when he said he had passed on to the RCMP a raw intelligence report saying Air India would be the target of a Sikh attack on its next weekly flight from Canada. (The officer in question denied being told.)

A former federal government lawyer recalled a top CSIS officer at a terrorism conference in Los Angeles a week before the bombing talking of fears that Sikh extremists would bomb an Air India flight. An ex-prosecutor said that the same official told her that he had to leave early to deal with an “urgent” Sikh extremist problem. But nothing was apparently done to tighten security. A former airport cleaner reported that, on the day of the attack, he had roamed the Air India plane in Toronto freely, without seeing any security staff. A former Quebec police dog-handler said he and his bomb-sniffing dog were called to Montreal airport (the flight's last Canadian stop) too late to search the ill-fated aircraft; it left 15 minutes before he arrived.

All this might be ancient history but for the fact that not much appears to have changed. In March the Senate committee on national security and defence followed up its harsh 2003 review of airport security measures brought in after the 2001 attacks (“occasionally useful, but largely cosmetic”) with a new report concluding that the gaping security holes identified then “are still gaping holes more than four years later”. Passengers may be thoroughly checked, but behind-the-scenes security is slack or non-existent, with inconsistent screening of mail, cargo and baggage, and an inadequate police presence, it said.

Not only do these gaps urgently need to be filled, but a beefed-up RCMP force should assume overall responsibility for airport security, ending conflicts between agencies, the report said. According to one expert, however, the biggest obstacle to tighter security is not with the front-line (where police and intelligence services now co-operate well), but with the senior civil servants and politicians who have the power. “Like the Americans in Pearl Harbour, they know, intellectually, that terrorism is a threat, but they don't actually believe it,” said John Thompson, president of the Mackenzie Institute, a think-tank.

That worries many moderates among the 700,000 Canadians of Indian origin, already alarmed at signs of a Sikh extremist revival. In April a float in a Sikh parade in Surrey, a Vancouver suburb, included in a display of Sikh martyrs and saints a photograph of Talwinder Parmar, the assumed mastermind (now dead) of the Air India attack. Ujjal Dosanjh, a Vancouver Liberal member of Parliament and long outspoken critic of Sikh extremism (once suffering a beating for it), said he was dismayed that this glorification of a terrorist was passed over with so little concern by the police, the politicians and the general public. “We're busy fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, yet we ignore the reality in our own midst,” he said. “It leads me to believe we really haven't learned many lessons from the Air India bombing.”

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