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How CSIS stumbled

That real-world spies are not nearly as clever as their Hollywood counterparts became glaringly obvious after the invasion of Iraq, when the extent of prewar U.S. intelligence failures became known.

But even in this new context, the scope of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service's bungling in the days and weeks before the Air-India disaster on June 23, 1985, is staggering. According to newly released documents, CSIS's efforts to keep tabs on Talwinder Singh Parmar -- a radical Sikh priest thought to have been at the heart of the conspiracy that led to the bombing -- were egregiously inept. Indeed, if the spies' misadventures had not been followed by one of the worst air disasters in history, they would have been fodder for dark comedy. As it turns out, the agency's mistakes were tragic. It now appears that, had the spies done their jobs, the disaster might even have been prevented, and 331 lives saved.

Consider that, months after CSIS identified Mr. Parmar as a possible threat, agents apparently could not pick him out of a group. "Trying to identify these people while they are in a vehicle is very difficult," one agent wrote in a surveillance report. "Anyone in the back seat of a car wearing a beard and turban looks like the next guy." How remarkable, that similarly dressed people of similar race should look identical! The same has been said of members of many other racial groups, at varying times. In every case, such statements have connoted ignorance, if not racism. Once individuals are known and understood, their unique traits become obvious. Clearly, Mr. Parmar's CSIS watchers neither knew nor understood him, though they were supposedly watching him closely.

Moreover, the agency's attempts to track Mr. Parmar's whereabouts appear to have been extraordinarily clumsy. On repeated occasions, while following him, they lost him. This may have been because, unlike the superspies of fiction, they made no attempt to blend into their surroundings. On repeated occasions, Mr. Parmar's neighbours called the RCMP to report the suspicious characters lurking in the neighbourhood. On other occasions, agents followed people they thought were Mr. Parmar -- who was killed in 1992 by police in India -- but turned out not to be.

Two questions. First, why did CSIS keep the full extent of its shoddy work secret for nearly 20 years? Second, has the agency changed its procedures and training to prevent a recurrence?

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