PM’s adviser sheds little light on Atwal affair
COMMITTEE NONE THE WISER ON INDIA TRIP, ATWAL AFFAIR
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.
Daniel Jean, national security and intelligence adviser to the prime minister, prepares to appear at a Commons national security committee on Monday.