Jim Brown, Canadian press
The 1985 Air India bombing represented an intelligence failure of massive proportions and could have been averted by better investigative work, says the man who was second-in-command at the time for the RCMP.
But Henry Jensen, the former deputy commissioner of operations for the Mounties, shouldered little of the blame in testimony Monday at a public inquiry into the terrorist attack that took 329 lives.
Instead, he pointed the finger at politicians who had “gutted” the national police force by taking away its security service, and at the new civilian spy agency CSIS that took over the job just a year before the tragedy.
“I’ve always carried the view that this is the biggest and most disastrous civil intelligence failure that Canada has faced,” Jensen told the inquiry headed by former Supreme Court justice John Major.
“I firmly believe that. I for one feel that somehow, somewhere, there were some dots that could have been linked and should have been linker. And had that been done, then who knows, it might have been prevented.”
As he did in a previous appearance at the inquiry last spring, Jensen took issue with the decision by the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau to abolish the old RCMP security service and replace it with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
The move was sparked by an earlier royal commission that found the Mounties had committed arson, theft and a variety of other illegal acts in the name of fighting Quebec separatism.
But Jensen said the reform left an “enormous gap” in the RCMP’s ability to detect terrorist plots and head them off before they could come to fruition.
“We didn’t have the resources to do it. We were gutted. I attribute this to a naiveté of parliamentarians and government.”
Jensen said he wouldn’t have objected to hiving off some intelligence functions, such as background checks on civil servants and counter-espionage operations, to a separate agency.
But terrorism is a criminal matter, he insisted. ” I think that was a gross error on the part of government to make that change.”
Critics have long blamed turf battles between the RCMP and CSIS for the failure to head off the June 1985 bombing, and for hampering the criminal investigation that followed the attack.
Documents tabled at the inquiry show the infighting reached to the very top of both organizations, with Ted Finn, then director of CSIS, complaining to Robert Simmonds, then commissioner of the RCMP, that the Mounties were trying to undercut the civilian spy agency and set up a parallel intelligence branch to replace the old security service they had lost.
Finn wrote in August 1986, more than a year after the Air India attack, that the RCMP was poaching on CSIS territory and compromising some of its sources by conducting interviews in the Sikh community.
Simmonds replied that any interviews were simply part of ongoing criminal investigations – a field that remained under RCMP purview.
Other correspondence shows the same battle being fought at lower levels by regional commanders who clashed over anti-terrorist operations.
Jensen, however, attributed the ill feeling almost entirely to people on the CSIS side – most of whom, ironically, were former Mounties who had moved to the new agency upon its creation.
“It illustrates to me a certain paranoia,” he said. “Here you’ve got a fledgling organization just basically starting up, very sensitive to the big mother organization that they came from.”
Major suggested legislative reforms could help to sort out the overlapping jurisdictions. For example, he noted, the CSIS Act, which created the agency in 1984, doesn’t spell out precisely the conditions under which the service is expected to share intelligence with the RCMP for criminal investigative purposes.
Parliament may want to assert its authority and deal with that problem, said Major – but he warned that politicians will have to exercise unusual wisdom to resolve the issue.
“If they created the mischief (in the original law) they can correct it. The bigger question is, they’re supreme enough but are they intelligent enough.”
Major also suggested legislation may be needed to limit the extent to which secret intelligence can be disclosed to defendants in criminal trials arising from terrorist activity.
Again, however, he added a cautionary note that legislators must walk a fine line to avoid infringing the Charter of Rights.
“We’re not talking about abusing the rights of an accused person. No one suggests that.”