PM’s ad­viser sheds lit­tle light on At­wal af­fair

COM­MIT­TEE NONE THE WISER ON IN­DIA TRIP, AT­WAL AF­FAIR

Regina Leader-Post - - FRONT PAGE - John IvI­son

There can be no doubt that Canada’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser was telling the truth, and noth­ing but the truth, when he ap­peared be­fore a par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee on Mon­day, in an at­tempt to clear up the Jas­pal At­wal af­fair.

But Daniel Jean was ex­plicit that he could not tell MPs the whole truth, be­cause much of it re­mains clas­si­fied.

The up­shot was that Jean re­vealed fewer de­tails on the events sur­round­ing Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s trip to In­dia than he did at the time to jour­nal­ists (in­clud­ing this one).

Jean said he elected to give cer­tain jour­nal­ists a back­ground brief­ing in Fe­bru­ary on con­victed at­tempted-murderer At­wal’s ap­pear­ance at a re­cep­tion in Mum­bai to counter a “false nar­ra­tive.”

At­wal posed for a photo with So­phie Gre­goire Trudeau in Mum­bai and was in­vited to an­other event at Canada’s em­bassy in New Delhi by Lib­eral MP Ran­deep Sarai. An ar­ti­cle in the Van­cou­ver Sun about At­wal’s pres­ence at the event asked how some­one with his crim­i­nal and Sikh sep­a­ratist past could be cleared to at­tend of­fi­cial func­tions in In­dia.

Jean said this is what prompted him to call a hand­ful of jour­nal­ists in Ot­tawa the next day to of­fer an al­ter­na­tive to what he sug­gested was “co-or­di­nated mis­in­for­ma­tion” — that the RCMP, CSIS and the Cana­dian High Com­mis­sion were aware of At­wal’s in­vi­ta­tions to the events but did not act to re­scind them.

“I never raised a con­spir­acy the­ory,” he said. “What I said is that there was co-or­di­nated ef­forts to try to mis­in­form and I said these were ei­ther pri­vate peo­ple — it was def­i­nitely not the gov­ern­ment of In­dia, and if it was peo­ple from In­dia, they were act­ing in a rogue way.”

At­wal was a one-time mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional Sikh Youth Fed­er­a­tion — now listed as a ter­ror­ist en­tity by Ot­tawa — who was con­victed in 1987 of try­ing to kill a Pun­jab cab­i­net min­is­ter va­ca­tion­ing in B.C.

How­ever, he is no longer con­sid­ered a ter­ror­ist threat by Canada or In­dia. The is­sue for the se­cu­rity ser­vices was more that At­wal’s pres­ence was an em­bar­rass­ment. “It was a faux pas. It should not have hap­pened,” Jean told the com­mit­tee.

He of­fered a much less ful­some ac­count than the one he gave me on Fe­bru­ary 22, when he al­leged At­wal’s pres­ence in In­dia “was not an ac­ci­dent.”

He said At­wal had de­vel­oped links with the In­dian gov­ern­ment, as his views on Sikh sep­a­ratism had evolved. “They no longer see him as the en­emy,” Jean said at the time, point­ing out he had been taken off a travel black­list, al­low­ing him to visit In­dia twice in 2017.

Jean said At­wal met with In­dian diplo­mats from the con­sulate in Van­cou­ver. At­wal’s own so­cial me­dia ac­count shows he vis­ited the In­dian Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs depart­ment in New Delhi last year.

The na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser sug­gested it might be con­ve­nient for some in the In­dian gov­ern­ment to em­bar­rass the vis­it­ing Cana­dian prime min­is­ter over the per­cep­tion that he is soft on Sikh sep­a­ratism.

When I asked which part of the In­dian gov­ern­ment might be so mo­ti­vated, he said: “The in­tel­li­gence ser­vice.”

In sub­se­quent in­ter­views, he asked a num­ber of rhetor­i­cal ques­tions: Who knew At­wal was in In­dia? Who took the pic­tures of At­wal with the prime min­is­ter’s wife? And who sent them to Cana­dian me­dia?

Jean’s in­ter­ven­tion — un­prece­dented for a na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, in my ex­pe­ri­ence — led to the op­po­si­tion par­ties ac­cus­ing the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment of ped­dling con­spir­acy the­o­ries that have ad­versely im­pacted Canada-In­dia re­la­tions. The In­dian gov­ern­ment sub­se­quently is­sued a state­ment deny­ing any in­volve­ment — “in­clud­ing by the se­cu­rity agen­cies” — in the At­wal af­fair.

But rather than press­ing Jean for ev­i­dence of ac­tiv­ity in Canada by rogue In­dian op­er­a­tives, the op­po­si­tion mem­bers of the pub­lic safety com­mit­tee were more in­tent on blam­ing the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice for wheel­ing out the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser to en­gage in dam­age lim­i­ta­tion.

Con­se­quently, they emerged from com­mit­tee none the wiser, which was pre­dictable, but also no bet­ter in­formed, which was not.

It’s hard to know what to make of Jean’s tes­ti­mony. It seems that he may have said too much in late Fe­bru­ary, al­though he de­nies re­veal­ing clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion.

Still, his ac­tions have at­tracted crit­i­cism within the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity.

Phil Gurski, a for­mer strate­gic an­a­lyst at CSIS who now runs Bo­re­alis Threat and Risk Con­sult­ing, said on his blog that Jean did what ev­ery­one in in­tel­li­gence knows is wrong: “dis­close sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion to those not en­ti­tled to re­ceive it.”

Jean’s ques­tions about how the pic­tures of the prime min­is­ter’s wife and At­wal sur­faced are valid.

At­wal blamed “en­e­mies” for cir­cu­lat­ing the pho­tos ob­tained by the Van­cou­ver Sun, in the ar­ti­cle on Fe­bru­ary 22.

But Jean’s de­fence of CSIS, the RCMP and the High Com­mis­sion in In­dia can’t de­flect from the fact a sim­ple Google search of the names on the in­vi­ta­tion list to the In­dian events would have re­vealed. The vet­ting process was clearly slap­dash.

But the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser had a line and he was stick­ing to it.

From the gov­ern­ment’s point of view, any re­minder about the ill-fated pas­sage to In­dia is a trip down mis­ery lane.

That Jean did not make things worse will be re­garded as some­thing of a tri­umph.

JUSTIN TAN / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Daniel Jean, na­tional se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence ad­viser to the prime min­is­ter, pre­pares to ap­pear at a Com­mons na­tional se­cu­rity com­mit­tee on Mon­day.

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