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.

 

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