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The twists and turns of the Air-India probe

An extraordinarily lengthy and expensive police investigation into one of the worst terrorist attacks in civil aviation history has led to the current murder trial of two men. But beyond the trial are questions about the way Canada handled, or mishandled, the Air-India investigation.

The explosion that killed 329 people aboard an Air-India flight from Toronto to London, and the one that killed two people in Tokyo's Narita airport, occurred 18 years ago, on June 23, 1985. The Liberals and NDP called for a public inquiry when the Conservatives were in power. The Canadian Alliance and NDP are calling for an inquiry now that the Liberals are in power.

Rightly so. There should be an independent look, once the trial is over, at the way the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service played their roles. Perhaps it would clear the air of (as Solicitor-General Wayne Easter put it last week) "allegations, rumours and innuendo." Perhaps it would find that Mr. Easter is being too kind in defending CSIS and the RCMP, both of which fall under his authority, and that the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), which oversees CSIS, was too kind in its 1992 report focusing on CSIS's role.

Much of this case is surrounded by fog. Documents recently released after the lifting of an 18-year publication ban raise more questions than they answer. They show that the police who interrogated the two men now on trial suggested to them that a man named Surjan Singh Gill might have been present during an alleged Sikh-separatist conspiracy to plant the bombs. They suggested that Mr. Gill had been a CSIS mole, and had been instructed by CSIS to leave the group before the bombing.

The transcripts are astonishing, suggesting that CSIS, though knowing of the terrorist plot, valued the integrity of its operation above the lives that would be lost. But the transcripts are also entirely unreliable. They tell us only that the interrogators, hoping to provoke the accused men into saying something incriminating, told them something that may have been untrue or purely conjectural.

These unreliable pieces fit into a confusing puzzle. Between March 27 and July 2, 1985, CSIS tapped the phone of Talwinder Singh Parmar, who was suspected of plotting to assassinate visiting Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to further the cause of a separate Sikh homeland carved out of India. It is now thought that Mr. Parmar, who was killed by police in India in 1992, was the central figure behind the Air-India bombings.

In an affidavit sworn some time after April, 1996, Constable Gary Clark-Marlou, a member of the Air-India task force, said one of the Parmar conversations before the bombings was with Mr. Gill, about the delivery of papers and clothes -- which the constable suggested was code for airline tickets and a suitcase for a bomb. Other documents indicate Mr. Gill met with Mr. Parmar on the day of that call and resigned from Mr. Parmar's group. Again, the question arises: Was Mr. Gill a CSIS mole, as the RCMP interrogators indicated, or, as he himself has said (he is now believed to be somewhere in England), did he resign because he did not believe in the use of violence to pursue the separatist goal?

Incredibly, CSIS erased most of the 210 tapes of those phone conversations days after they were made. SIRC's 1992 report on CSIS's actions attributed the erasure to outdated and deficient policies and confusion among CSIS personnel. It said CSIS "was not in a position to predict that the Air-India flight was to be the target of a terrorist attack," and added, "It is unlikely that the prevailing practices resulted in the loss of important information relevant to the disaster and the subsequent investigation." That word "unlikely" deserves further study.

CSIS has denied any prior knowledge of the Air-India plot. It issued a release last week calling the idea "absurd." Solicitor-General Easter echoed the word in the Commons, saying the idea that CSIS would ignore an imminent terrorist attack to protect a source "is absolutely absurd" and that CSIS did not have a mole among any Air-India conspirators.

The fog extends further. As Derek Lee, Liberal chair of the Commons subcommittee on national security, noted recently, there was bad blood at the time between the RCMP and CSIS, which had been created in 1984 from the RCMP's rogue security service. The bad blood persisted; a 1999 SIRC report said rivalry between the two groups meant they weren't sharing information about drug trafficking and smuggling.

One of the recently released documents is an internal memo written in 1986 by a senior CSIS official. Three weeks before the Air-India bombing, the official wrote, CSIS agents travelled to Vancouver Island on the trail of Mr. Parmar and Inderjit Singh Reyat, who was convicted of manslaughter in 1991 in connection with the Narita bomb and who pleaded guilty to manslaughter last February in connection with the Air-India bomb. They heard an explosion they assumed was a gunshot, and passed the information along to the RCMP.

Had CSIS realized sooner that it was the testing of a homemade bomb, the official wrote, it might have "deterred" the Air-India bombing; but it did send a note after the disaster to the RCMP, which searched the Vancouver Island site and apparently found the remains of a blasting cap. Evidence of co-operation? Clearly the RCMP hadn't thought so. ". . . I find it difficult," the CSIS official wrote, "to understand how the RCMP can construe anything about this incident as reflecting a lack of co-operation by CSIS."

And that is precisely the reason for a public inquiry: to help Canadians construe what has gone on for the past 18 years. Whatever the outcome of the current trial, a public examination of the twists and turns of the past 18 years -- the destruction of potentially valuable evidence, the failure to follow operational procedures, the transcripts of the RCMP interrogations -- may shed light on how Canada dealt with the single worst terrorist act in its history. Solicitor-General Easter says the narrow SIRC inquiry was enough. He is wrong.

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