The National Security and Intelligence Adviser to the Prime Minister, Daniel Jean, made a rare appearance before a Parliamentary committee on April 16. Such visits are usually sparked by scandal and controversy, and Jean’s appearance was no different. On the last occasion when a National Security Adviser ventured onto Parliament Hill, in 2014, it was to address the Snowden revelations. This time the issue was a briefing that Mr. Jean had given to the media on background to explain the government’s knowledge of the circumstances behind the involvement of Jaspal Atwal in the Prime Minister’s gaffe-filled trip to India (aka the “Bengal Bungle”).
Jaspal Atwal, a Sikh Canadian, emerged as the star gaffe. He is a former supporter of an independent Sikh homeland (Khalistan) who was convicted as a young man of the attempted murder of a visiting Indian cabinet minister in 1986. He was also charged but ultimately acquitted in the vicious 1985 beating of Ujal Dosanjh. This thirty-year-old story came back to life when Mr. Atwal, a BC resident, was photographed with Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi at an official reception in Mumbai during the prime minister’s trip. Mr. Atwal apparently enjoys being a part of celebrity photographs, but on this occasion the photographer caught and ignited a brief, but dramatic, national security crisis in relations between Canada and India.
What Daniel Jean was able to clarify in his testimony before the House of Commons Committee on Public Safety and National Security, if it needed clarifying, was that the presence of Mr. Atwal at an official event in India, while not a security risk, was a screw-up, a “faux-pas” that should never have happened. The screw-up was a combination of an inappropriate invitation from a BC Liberal MP, Randeep Sarai, who put Mr. Atwal’s name on the guest list, and the PMO’s failure to properly vet the guest list. Case closed on that one, or so it would seem.
Mr. Jean’s testimony was also meant to dispel a “conspiracy theory” regarding actors who may have tried to profit from the Atwal story to create political embarrassment for the government of Canada. Here the story remains murky. Case definitely not closed.
The problem at the heart of Mr. Jean’s testimony is that the exact substance of his background briefings to the media is not known and several versions now exist. According to Mr. Jean he felt it was right to conduct a (very unusual) background briefing because of concerns that a “coordinated misinformation” campaign was underway to tarnish Canada’s reputation as a security partner. It appeared to Mr. Jean that a false “narrative” was being planted on the Canadian media, which was designed to suggest that Canadian security agencies had foreknowledge of Mr. Atwal’s involvement in official events during the PM’s tour of India but chose to do nothing about it, thereby proving official complaisance about Sikh terrorism. Even the hint of such complaisance would be very aggravating for Canada–India relations.
Two unresolved issues stand out about the “coordinated misinformation campaign.” One is whether it really existed, or was a product of a slightly overheated reading of events in a crisis atmosphere generated by the Atwal story.
The other is the question of who might have been behind such a campaign, if it was coordinated. Here, Mr. Jean’s testimony about what he said in the background briefings does not completely line up with media reporting about the briefing.
Mr. Jean told the committee that he was very clear in the background briefing that he didn’t know who was behind the misinformation campaign. He said he didn’t know whether it was conducted by private actors or elements of the Indian government who were acting without that government’s “blessing.” He did not indicate to the committee that the Indian intelligence services might have played a role in the misinformation campaign but said only that he had mentioned in the background briefing that the Indian intelligence services had a “perception that has been brought at times” that “Canada is complacent on the risk of extremism.”
Why Daniel Jean allowed himself to be drawn into speculation about the possible source of the misinformation campaign, when the background briefing was meant to be a purely factual exercise remains unknown. Why he would have raised the possibility that this was something orchestrated by elements of the Indian intelligence service, if he did raise this, which on the public record is decidedly unclear, seems even more inexplicable. But senior public servants who have spent a lifetime within the walls of government can sometimes wrong-foot themselves when dealing with the media and do the cause of transparency over national security issues no good.
The Atwal affair has now been seized on by the new National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (with the cool acronym NSI-COP), created only last year. The security-cleared committee has promised to deliver a special report to the prime minister on the affair by the end of May. In their press release announcing the study, the committee noted that it will explore three issues: 1) foreign interference in Canadian political affairs; 2) risks to the security of the prime minister; and 3) inappropriate use of intelligence. The middle issue is largely a softball with an easy answer — there was no direct risk. The first and third pose difficult questions as a first test for the newly minted committee. Yes, it will produce a classified report that we will never see, but its legislation also requires it to table an unclassified report to Parliament.
So, stay tuned. The Atwal affair is not yet a vanishing conspiracy theory.
See Part 2 of this blog, “Media Reports on the PM’s India Trip” here.
Wesley Wark, Executive in Residence, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs