Air India Inquiry Reveals Intelligence Faults

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on May 28, 2007. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on May 28, 2007. Partner content is not updated.

Air India Inquiry Reveals Intelligence Faults

"At 8:46 on the morning of September 11, 2001, the United States became a nation transformed." - Final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States

The Air India bombings, which claimed 331 lives, most of them Canadian, almost 22 years ago, has belatedly been called Canada's 9/11. In truth, it was never close to that. The date, June 23, 1985, is not seared into the nation's soul. The events of that day snuffed out hundreds of innocent lives and altered the destinies of thousands more, but it neither shook the foundations of government, nor transformed its policies. It was not, in the main, even officially acknowledged as an act of TERRORISM. The political word "tragedy" seemed safer, somehow. It did not carry the same imperative for a rigorous public examination of the cascade of intelligence failures that allowed two planes to depart Vancouver International Airport with bombs planted in their cargo holds.

It is only now, in an Ottawa hearing room, that retired Supreme Court justice John Major has a mandate to probe the past - after key players have died and memories have been dimmed by time. For all that, the revelations that have rocked the hearing in recent weeks prove the merits of revisiting the disaster. As well, documents made public by the inquiry, and combed through by Maclean's, point to a tragic series of miscues, and disastrous false assumptions. They convey a cumulative, powerful impression that the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history might have been averted if clear warnings, repeated over several months, had been heeded.

Among the documents are urgent warnings from William Warden, Canada's high commissioner in India from 1983 to 1986, about the emerging Sikh terrorist danger in Canada. His diplomatic telexes seem to have been largely unheeded, and certainly never translated into aggressive action by the RCMP and the CANADIAN SECURITY INTELLIGENCE SERVICE. CSIS was still in its first year of operation when Air India Flight 182 blew apart off the Irish coast. That same June day, two baggage handlers at Narita Airport in Japan were killed loading a bag arriving from Vancouver onto a connecting Air India flight.

In fact, the frequent threat assessments coming from India, and from Air India, its state airline, seem to have been treated with a suspicion bordering on contempt. A few months after the bombings, the minutes of a meeting of federal officials from departments including Justice and Transport, as well as the RCMP, claim it would have been "impossible" and "too time consuming" for a dog to have sniffed all of Flight 182's baggage for explosives. That viewpoint casts a new light on the surprise testimony of retired police dog handler Serge Carignan, who told the inquiry he was called to Mirabel Airport for a search of Flight 182 late the night of June 22, only to find the plane had departed.

At the same post-mortem session, held Jan. 7, 1986, a Transport official recounted how Air India routinely sent letters before almost every flight outlining threats it received. "It was felt by most people present," the document summarizing what transpired at the meeting states, "that this was Air India's way of having increased security for their flights at no extra cost to them." But the threat, of course, proved all too real. Even at the time, CSIS seemed to know that. A CSIS official at the meeting related how just four days before the Air India disaster, the agency had rated the risk of a Sikh extremist strike as "high." Since bags from Vancouver were loaded onto Flight 182 in Toronto, and the plane also stopped in Montreal, a Justice official asked if that warning was communicated to security officials at those two airports. "The answer was no," the document tersely records.

In light of how that CSIS assessment wasn't circulated and Air India's pleas were discounted, the recent shocking testimony of James BARTLEMAN - then the top security official at External Affairs, now Ontario's lieutenant-governor - seems more plausible than many credit. Bartleman testified that days before the explosion he saw an intercepted communication threatening Flight 182. His attempt to pass on the information was, he says, brushed off by the RCMP.

Other hearing documents yet to be publicly aired include a fall 1984 assessment by CSIS that seems at best naive and at worst tragically wrong. In this "situation report," CSIS said the return to Sikh control of the Golden Temple, 115 days after the Indian army had stormed Sikhism's holiest shrine in a bloody invasion in June 1984, "produced a definite trend toward moderation by Sikhs." In fact, the return did little to quell the rage, an anger that inflamed extremism and directly led to the assassination that October of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards, and the Air India bombings the next year.

As Major draws together the strands of testimony and documentation in Ottawa, he can find a template in the report of a more recent terrorist attack. Many of the apparent intelligence failings of Air India resurfaced in altered form south of the border 16 years later. The paths to the terror attacks of June 1985 and September 2001 bear similarities that go beyond the obvious: the use of planeloads of innocents by misguided religious zealots to settle scores in distant lands.

The U.S. - unlike Canada, which was mired in a criminal investigation and then a failed attempt to prosecute two suspects in the bombings - was quick to strike a bipartisan commission to examine why the nation was caught unprepared and how to prevent a repeat in the future. In July 2004, less than three years after the attacks, it released a 585-page report and a 34-page executive summary.

The 9/11 commission report, written with the verve of a real-crime novel, became an instant bestseller. Its authors have been criticized for errors of omission or fact. And conspiracy theorists have deemed it an elaborate cover-up. Still, it is a distillation of 1,200 interviews and more than 2.5 million pages of documents. Major's more modest inquiry can't hope to match its scope or immediacy, yet he seems certain to explore strikingly similar issues. Among them:

"The system was blinking red." - The 9/11 commission

BY the summer of 2001, U.S. counterterrorism officials were under siege, buried by an avalanche of dire risk assessments, the commission notes. "Indeed, there appeared to be possible threats almost everywhere the United States has interests - including at home."

The report cited a series of escalating U.S.-focused attacks, starting with the 1993 attempt to bring down the World Trade Center with a truck bomb, and continuing assaults on U.S. personnel abroad, including the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the suicide attack on the destroyer USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors in October 2000. By then, the U.S. assumed the attacks were perpetrated by al-Qaeda, under the direction of Osama bin Laden. The American military response had been ineffectual, says the report, leaving bin Laden to infer that attacks, "at least on the level of the Cole, were risk-free."

In Canada by 1984-85, Sikh extremists operated with near impunity while fighting for and financing the attempt to carve a Sikh nation they called Khalistan out of India's Punjab. No group was more instrumental in the battle than Babbar Khalsa (Tigers of the True Faith), founded by one-time B.C. sawmill worker Talwinder Singh Parmar. In India, Babbar Khalsa was a terrorist organization. In Canada, it was a registered charity. In India, Parmar was a wanted murderer and terrorist. In Canada, he was a media darling, a charismatic speaker at Indian temples, known as gudwaras, and, it was discovered too late, the suspected mastermind behind the Air India bombings.

India, which is believed to have had more spies tracking Canadian Sikhs than Canada did, grew increasingly alarmed. Not so the RCMP and CSIS. While officials in Canada were discounting Air India's concerns, Warden was firing off telexes from New Delhi on the growing Sikh problem. In June 1984, he noted the violent demonstrations by Sikhs in Canada in the aftermath of India's attack on armed separatists at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. He warned that Indian sources believed that "moderates among Sikhs in Canada were losing out to extremists," and that Indian officials were telling him about "the strong possibility that Canadian Sikhs might engage in international terrorism activities."

Later that summer, he cautioned his superiors that the rise of Sikh extremist activity in Canada had put Canadian relations with India "on a rather rocky road." Soon he was wondering why charges hadn't been laid after Sikh radicals attacked an Indian diplomat and government missions in Canada. He suggested to officials back home that they try to get the solicitor general, the cabinet minister responsible for the RCMP, to issue "a directive to federal agencies to effect that offences against diplomatic premises and personnel are to be prosecuted vigorously." Warden left little doubt, however, that Indian officials had lost all confidence in Canada, noting that the Indian government did not plan to renew a request for the extradition of Parmar because "we know you won't do it and we don't want to embarrass you."

By the fall of 1984, Warden's pleas for attention to the Sikh terrorism risk grew more urgent. He referred to a perception in India that Canada is "hospitable to Sikh extremism." The assassination of Indira Gandhi that October triggered wild celebration among Sikh extremists in Canada, and set off riots in India in which thousands of Sikhs were killed by Hindu mobs in retaliation. Warden pressed for information about any Canadian link to Gandhi's murder. He notes Parmar's name is "frequently mentioned" in Indian news stories on a possible foreign connection in a conspiracy.

His frustration over Ottawa's failure to clamp down on the most extreme Sikh groups in Canada comes through despite a veneer of diplomatic formality.

In a Nov. 14, 1984, telex, he refers to "unchecked threats of violence to Mrs. Gandhi" issued by Sikh demonstrators in Canada in the summer before her assassination, and closes by noting, "We trust this [telex] will have made clear [the] downward path along which [Canada's relationship with India] is willy nilly being propelled by [a] group unrepresentative of national interests."

Warden said in an interview with Maclean's that the Indian government's main demand was that Canada should arrest, charge and prosecute Sikh extremists who had attacked Indian government buildings and officials in Canada. Failure to crack down on Sikh demonstrators who turned violent, he said, probably emboldened the terrorists. "If the Canadian government had, at an early stage, come out and rigorously enforced the law with respect to public threats to assassinate the Indian prime minister and that sort of thing," Warden said, "then I think it might well have taken the wind out of the sails of the militants, have served notice that we were watching them, and possibly deterred them from going as far as they did."

"The most important failure was one of imagination." - The 9/11 commission

Successive American governments, under Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush, underestimated the domestic threat from Islamic extremism, the report concludes. "Terrorism was not the overriding national security concern for the U.S. government," the commission said. The CIA's ability to gather intelligence needed improvement and there had been little serious thought given to the possibility of domestic airliners being hijacked as weapons against the American people. "The missed opportunities to thwart the 9/11 plot were also symptoms of a broader inability to adapt the way government manages problems to the new challenges of the 21st century."

Canadian security forces in the mid-1980s were also ill-prepared for new realities, such as the idea that hijacking planes might escalate to blowing them from the sky. While CSIS agents had Parmar wiretapped and under surveillance for months before the bombings, they were hindered by a crucial fact: Parmar spoke Punjabi, a language no one in CSIS's Vancouver office understood. He might as well have been speaking in code as he and others had a series of meetings, telephone calls and even conducted a test explosion on Vancouver Island.

It was weeks before wiretaps were translated and agents could gain some idea what had happened. The tapes were then erased, one more indication of the relatively low priority placed on the exercise. "They were collecting all this intelligence but it was not prioritized, so the information just sat and was eventually erased," says Karthika Sasikumar, a post-doctorate fellow specializing in terrorism issues at the Lui Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia.

The plotters grew increasingly bold in their actions and often violent in their reprisals and threats against moderate Sikh critics. Yet the RCMP and CSIS failed to connect the dots. "An incredibly large number of people knew about it, knew something about it," says Sasikumar of the bomb plot. "They just didn't have the precise information." The same can be said of the 9/11 bombers. Such actions as fast-tracking their training in U.S. flight schools to fly large jets came clear only after the fact. "In the words of one official," the 9/11 commission wrote, "no analytic work foresaw the lightning that could connect the thundercloud to the ground."

"Hijackers had to beat only one layer of security - the security checkpoint process." - The 9/11 commission

The 9/11 hijackers armed themselves with small knives, box cutters, mace or pepper spray, items that didn't register on airport magnetometers, or wouldn't raise alarm. Despite the heightened level of alert, the report dryly notes, "their success rate in penetrating the system was 19 for 19." So, of course, was their death rate.

In retrospect, the stakes for the Air India bombers were remarkably low even though security for the few Air India flights leaving Canada each week was, or should have been, on high alert. The interline baggage system allowed luggage bombs to be loaded on two separate Vancouver planes connecting to Air India flights originating in Toronto and Japan. In neither case did the terrorists have to risk discovery or certain death by accompanying their luggage.

At that post-mortem meeting in early 1986, federal officials discussed the security "as it was in place" on the day of the Air India tragedy. "It is impossible to have a dog search all luggage going on board as it is too time consuming," the record of the meeting states. In any case, they questioned their authority to detain the aircraft. A Transport official interpreted the regulations as allowing the government to stop a departure only if there is "a specific threat to that plane." And the record of the meeting flatly states that there was "no specific threat" to Air India Flight 182 on that day.

"Management should have ensured that information was shared and duties were clearly assigned across agencies and across the foreign-domestic divide." - The 9/11 commission

The U.S. had a vast array of largely autonomous agencies concerned with security. What it lacked was an ability to pool and interpret information and formulate a coherent plan "for joint operations involving entities as disparate as the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, the military and the agencies involved in homeland security," the commission noted. The agencies were watching everything, it seems, and seeing nothing.

Canada's more modest security forces had their own communication problems. "CSIS was only just out of the starting gate. It was less than a year old when this happened," says Stuart Farson, an adjunct professor on security and intelligence issues at Simon Fraser University, and the former head of research for the parliamentary committee reviewing the CSIS Act and the Security Offences Act in 1990. "It was going through teething problems and there was conflict between CSIS and the RCMP."

Could that be why CSIS's threat assessment of the Sikh terrorist risk on June 18, 1986 - "high," on a scale of "low, medium and high" - was not passed on to RCMP airport security at Pearson and Mirabel? No answer is offered in the 1986 post-mortem meeting, only an explanation from a CSIS East India Desk official that the assessment was based on "a subjective analysis of the target, country profile, past terrorist activities, support bases in Canada, ideology, etc."

If lines of communication between CSIS and the RCMP were faulty, External Affairs seems to have been frequently ignored or cut out of the loop. Documents released by Major's inquiry hint at frustration among department officials over how CSIS and the RCMP were approaching Sikh militant activity. On June 3, 1985, an External Affairs official wrote to CSIS's director general of counterterrorism to ask about the arrests in Vancouver and London of two members of the militant Sikh Student Federation, who were caught trying to smuggle machine gun components and ammunition to England on the way to India. The miffed official noted an article on the case appeared "to go far beyond other information received from the RCMP and CSIS on this matter." He asked CSIS to explain if the incident was merely criminal in nature, or suggested a terrorist threat.

"We learned about an enemy who is sophisticated, patient, disciplined and lethal ... It makes no difference between military and civilian targets." - The 9/11 commission

The U.S. intelligence community was still adjusting to the post-Cold War era. Its agencies had little understanding of the Arab and Muslim world let alone the limitless hostility of the extremists within it, the report notes. "We learned that the institutions charged with protecting our borders, civil aviation and national security did not understand how grave this threat could be, and did not adjust their policies, plans and practices to deter or defeat it."

In many ways, Canada was in a similar situation in 1985. Canadian security authorities had little understanding of the Sikh community in general, and little prospect of infiltrating its radical element with a spy force that did not speak the language or look the part.

Critics including Rattan Mall, the outspoken editor of Vancouver's Indo-Canadian Voice newspaper, attribute the ignorance to a combination of racism and incompetence - the same forces that blocked, until now, an inquiry into the disaster. "They just didn't care about non-white Canadians. Indo-Canadians were just those guys, not us guys," he wrote in a recent analysis of the hearings. As for the quality of the intelligence forces, "the Indian police regarded the Canadian establishment either as supporters of terrorists," Mall says, "or as a bunch of goofs."

Warden, somewhat more diplomatically, believes the Indian government had better information than Ottawa about what was happening in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto. "They obviously had good sources in Canada, probably better sources than a lot of Canadian agencies, from the information they were sending us," he said. Given his faith in the information he was getting from Indian officials, Warden said he has wondered, in the two decades since the attack, whether he did enough to convey that sense of mounting concern. But he reread his own dispatches from 1984 and early 1985, and feels satisfied that he did his best. "I think I was as forceful as I could be," he said, "without going over the edge."

By the spring of 1985, Warden says the message that Sikh radicalism had to be taken seriously was starting to get through. In mid-May, just over a month before Air India Flight 182 was blown out of the sky, a working group of officials from several federal departments was set up to regularly discuss Sikh extremism. The same month, federal officials discussed a proposal from Washington to form a tripartite group to share intelligence on Sikh militant activities among U.S., British and Canadian officials. Those developments, of course, came too late.

The U.S. was indeed transformed by the events of 9/11 and by the painful examination of its failings. It is a harder and more vigilant place. "We believe we are safer today," the commission concluded. "But we are not safe." Canadian authorities, for reasons both valid and dubious, had no stomach for such reflection. What mistakes were made, what lessons were learned - if lessons were learned - have been stamped "Secret" and buried deep. Until now. Judge Major's inquiry, in generating anxiety and raising uncomfortable questions, is proving its worth. Better a bout of insecurity than a false sense of safety.

Maclean's May 28, 2007