I am far from the only one to label the recent trip by our Prime Minister to India a disaster. Several media outlets have called it so and I will leave it to the reader to follow up on those. What I wish to pursue is the Jaspar Atwal affair. For those Canadians living in a parallel universe, this is the saga of a convicted Canadian Sikh extremist who was invited to several functions associated with the PM’s Indian junket despite his unsavoury past. When the news of that past surfaced the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) struggled to explain how he got invited and a Liberal MP, Randeep Serai, fell on his sword and took the blame for the gaffe.
The affair was not over by a long stretch. While our PM was still in India an ‘unnamed senior security source’ told a few journalists that it was in fact ‘elements’ within the Indian government who were behind the invitation and that they had done so to embarrass the Canadian government and undermine bilateral relations. That ‘unnamed official’ turns out to be none other than National Security Advisor (NSA) Daniel Jean. For the uninitiated, the NSA is a political appointee who does, ostensibly, what his job title says he does: advise the PM on national security issues. Some, like Terry Glavin, did not think that Mr. Jean had the right qualification for the post.
But getting back to the allegation – how plausible is it? Many, myself included, see this as conspiracy theory and a poor attempt at cover up for a poor process of vetting the PM’s dinner guests. Truth, however, is stranger than fiction sometimes, perhaps more so in the world of intelligence and national security so we cannot rule out the (albeit remote) possibility that there was a dastardly Indian plot to set the Sikh extremist among the dinner invitees after all. Nevertheless it does seem a bit far-fetched.
What perhaps is most egregious though is that the NSA elected, for reasons that remain opaque, to tell journalists about the Indian shenanigans. As NSA he has access to sensitive information (i.e. intelligence) that is normally shared only on a need to know basis with those holding the requisite security clearances, and certainly NOT with the public. That it was the NSA, and not, say, the Minister of Fisheries who broke the news is telling and it is reasonable to assume that his information was based on intelligence sources.
This is bad, very bad. A man charged with receiving, passing on, and safeguarding Canada’s secrets chose to blabber about one of them. Skipping over whether the story is true or not, here is what really matters. Allow me to elaborate with a series of increasingly unlikely scenarios.
Let’s say that the story is true and that there was such a plot on the part of certain factions within India. The NSA has essentially told Canadians, and by extension the Indians, that we are spying on India. That disclosure is generally frowned upon, especially when your leader is in the country which is the target of your intelligence efforts. Secondly, what if the piece of information outlining the ‘plot’ was contained only in a sensitive source, say an email or in an encrypted message. Mr. Jean has thereby told the Indians that not only are we spying on you but that communication you thought was secure is in fact not. If you were those Indian parties and you learned that your systems were compromised, what would you do? I am guessing you would make sure you moved to a more secure system that was harder to collect and process.
Lest you think I am making a mountain out of a molehill, a similar event happened more than 30 years ago and had dire consequences. In 1986 a bomb went off in a disco in West Berlin (yes, I realise how old this sounds when I use the words ‘disco’ and ‘West Berlin’ in the same sentence), killing two US servicemen. Then US President Ronald Reagan told the world US intelligence agencies had intercepted Libyan telexes in which it was clear that then Libyan leader Colonel Qaddafi was behind the attack. He did so to provide justification for the ensuing air strikes in Libya, but in doing that he let the Libyans know that their comms were compromised. What do you think happened to Libyan messages after that?
Whether or not there is a shred of truth in the “it was the Indians!” claim, the NSA has committed an unforgivable error. He has done what everyone in intelligence knows is wrong: disclose sensitive information to those who are not entitled to receive it. As a result, Mr. Jean should tender his resignation and the PM should find someone who understands how intelligence should be handled.