The bail hearing in Vancouver’s glass-roofed Law Courts building was expected to take two hours. Instead, it was over in five minutes. Facing B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Allan McEachern, Crown prosecutor James Taylor admitted that his case against two B.C. men, Harjit Singh Atwal and Piara Singh Natt, was based on tainted evidence.
Atwal and Natt were charged along with seven other Sikhs in British Columbia with conspiring to murder a Punjabi cabinet minister on an isolated Vancouver Island road in May, 1986.
But Taylor told McEachern that affidavits filed by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to obtain a wiretap that led to the arrest of the men were riddled with errors. Grim-faced, he asked the judge for a stay of proceedings.
Shortly after, cheering supporters greeted Atwal and Natt as they were released from the Vancouver remand centre after a year in jail. Said defence lawyer David Gibbons: “Finally, two innocent men are free.”
The repercussions from Taylor’s embarrassing admission went far beyond the courtroom. Last week the government was conducting four separate investigations of CSIS. Not satisfied, opposition critics demanded a full parliamentary inquiry into the wiretap fiasco— as well as into revelations about an investigation of the infiltration of Quebec unions by CSIS informers. The spy agency, they contended, was repeating the mistakes of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police security service, which was disbanded in 1984 after a series of scandals. Said Liberal justice critic Robert Kaplan: “There is a crisis in public confidence in the government’s ability to assure national security.”
The wiretap affair has already claimed one high-level victim. Thomas D’Arcy (Ted) Finn resigned under pressure as CSIS director on Sept. 11 after the agency admitted that the wiretap application in the B.C. case had been flawed. Finn was immediately replaced by civil servant and former diplomat Reid Morden. A senior intel-
ligence official familiar with CSlS’s internal operations told Maclean's that the wiretap error bolstered long-standing doubts about Finn’s leadership in government circles. The official said that Finn was a highly principled man of great integrity. But “his management skills let him down,” and he was unable to exercise effective control over the agency after he was appointed as its director in 1984. As a result, the official said, CSlS’s five deputy directors, four of them veterans of the old RCMP intelligence service, manipulated Finn and effectively ran the organization. “Ted Finn was getting it from all sides,” said the official. “His critical failure was not to call for help and
send out a lifeline.” Finn has declined to talk to the media since his resignation.
Last week there were more damaging revelations. New Democrat MP Svend Robinson released partial transcripts of the controversial wiretap, which showed that CSIS agents had known about the visit of the Punjabi
minister, Malikat Singh Sidhu—raising questions about whether they could have prevented the assassination attempt against him. The day after Sidhu was attacked, sustaining gunshot wounds to the arm and chest, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark had said that the RCMP had not provided security for the politician because no one had informed Ottawa of his visit.
But the transcripts produced by Robinson showed that eight days before Sidhu’s visit, two B.C. Sikhs had talked on the telephone about beating up the minister. Although there was no discussion of assassination, critics said that the CSIS agent involved had
bungled by failing to pass on the information to the local RCMP and CSIS headquarters in Ottawa. Declared NDP Leader Ed Broadbent: “This is a scandalous situation.”
The information obtained from the wiretap was the key to the charges laid against Atwal and Natt. But CSIS officials now admit that there were major inaccuracies in the agency’s application for the wiretap. A suspected typographical error resulted in the wrong date being included in the affidavit. And at least two statements in the document were based on information obtained by a source whom CSIS considered unreliable. Eventually, nine men were charged in connection with the Sidhu conspiracy. Four are now serving 20-year sentences for attempted murder. Those sentences will stand because the evidence against them was not obtained from the wiretap. The other five, including Atwal and Natt, will remain free unless authorities can obtain new evidence against them within a year. In the meantime, Solicitor General James Kelleher said that every search, wire-
tap and mail-opening warrant issued to CSIS since its creation in 1984 will be reviewed.
The security service came under further scrutiny last week after it was revealed that the Security Intelligence Review Committee—the watchdog agency that oversees CSIS—was conducting a major investigation into the infiltration of Quebec unions by paid informers and CSIS agents. The committee’s investigation centres on Marc Boivin, a 10-year employee of Quebec’s Confederation of National Trade Unions (CNTU). According to Kelleher, Boivin, 38, has worked secretly for CSIS, and earlier the RCMP, for the past 15 years. This summer he pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to bomb four Quebec hotels linked to a labor dispute and will be sentenced Oct. 2.
Under tough questioning by the opposition in the Commons, Kelleher admitted that Boivin was a CSIS informer—but denied that he was an agent of the spy agency. Quebec union leaders expressed skepticism. They suggested that Boivin was an agent pro-
vocateur, assigned by the security services to discredit the Quebec labor movement. And they voiced concern that other agents might be working in other unions. Said CNTU president Gérald Larose at a union meeting in Montreal: “It would be rather naïve to believe that the Boivin case was unique.”
For his part, the NDP’s Robinson said that the Boivin case echoed the campaign by the RCMP against supporters of the Parti Québécois in the early 1970s. “This brings us right back to the days of the RCMP security service,” said Robinson. “They don’t understand the distinction between subversion and dissent.”
Indeed, the review committee made just that point in its annual report on CSIS, released in July. In one case, the committee noted that the agency had needlessly investigated the staff of a left-wing magazine. It also criticized the organization for keeping too many files—a total of 600,000—on individual Canadians. Last week committee chairman Ronald Atkey said that the Boivin investigation would attempt to
determine whether CSIS had engaged in “unnecessary or improper activity.” Kelleher added that two more investigations into Boivin’s activities were under way—one by Richard Gosse, inspector general of Kelleher’s department, and another by a team of administrators led by Gordon Osbaldeston, former clerk of the Privy Council. But Kelleher insisted that CSIS had never targeted unions for infiltration.
In the midst of the Boivin revelations, The Ottawa Citizen published another troubling report about CSIS. According to the newspaper, former RCMP commissioner Robert Simmonds set up a shadow counterterrorism unit in 1983. The Citizen reported that the RCMP carried on its activities even after the new agency was officially set up in 1984 because Simmonds did not trust CSIS to do an adequate job in counterterrorism. In response, Kelleher denied that Simmonds had formed such a shadow unit. But he acknowledged that CSIS and the RCMP often stepped on each other’s toes when intelligence-gathering and law enforcement overlapped.
Relations between the two agencies have been touchy ever since CSIS was carved out of the Mounties’ organization in the wake of a report by the McDonald Royal Commission urging a civilian force. But a senior intelligence official said that Kelleher has done a good job of forcing the two groups to work together. “We give him full credit for knocking Simmonds’s and Finn’s heads together,” he said. “He was pretty firm. He told them he wanted co-operation.”
But rivalry with the RCMP was not the only problem that CSIS faced. Some intelligence officials contend that sloppy investigative work, poor morale and, above all, weak leadership hurt the organization in its early years. “Finn tried to run the organization by consensus rather than by kicking ass,” said one senior official familiar with CSIS.
Countersubversion, in which the agency tries to identify individuals and organizations who might attempt to destabilize the government, gave Finn special difficulty, the official said. “Ted knew the problems and put in one of his best guys,” said the official. “But he couldn’t do it alone. So countersubversion became the dumping ground for people moving within the system. It was purgatory for them, and no one wanted to go there because they knew it was a dumping ground.” Many agents, he said, wasted time investigating legitimate left-wing organizations rather than maintaining surveillance of potential terrorists.
Still, officials with knowledge of CSIS
say that the organization should be able to overcome its problems. They insist that the microscopic examination that CSIS is undergoing, while it may be embarrassing, will strengthen the agency in the long run. Said Osbaldeston, whose investigation will examine the management of CSIS: “I am confident that they will come out okay.” Others argued that the current troubles are typical for a new organization. Explaining the troubles of CSIS, one former intelligence official who once worked in the Privy Council office noted, “They are the birthing pains of a new organization.”
After his appointment, Morden also insisted that the agency’s problems
can be solved. “Everything I have seen and heard does not lead me to believe that the current difficulties are because of a police mind-set,” he said in an interview. “Rather it was because of sloppiness and human error. There was no deliberate attempt to mislead.” Morden added that he will not tolerate undisciplined behavior in the agency. “I am not a zealot and not somebody with a mission,” he said. “I don’t believe that the people in the service should have a mission—they are there to do a job and collect the information and bring their best analytical skills for the government to use in its operations. People who overstep won’t get much sympathy from me.”
Morden said that his first task is to restore public confidence in the agency. “Clearly,” he said, “there is a difficult problem with CSlS’s credibility, both in Parliament and with the Cana-
dian public.” The best way to do that, he added, would be to score a major success in an investigation. By far the largest such investigation conducted by the agency so far centres on the Air-India disaster. Since an Air-India jet was destroyed during a flight from Toronto to New Delhi in June, 1985, killing all 329 people on board, the RCMP and CSIS have been trying to find the perpetrators of the suspected terrorist attack. The wiretap that led to the arrest of Atwal and Natt was begun two weeks after the crash in hopes of finding leads. So far, no arrests have been made. And as a result, Liberal MP John Nunziata said last week, “The biggest mass murder in Canadian
history may go unpunished.”
Another challenge for Morden is to strengthen relations with other Western intelligence organizations, such as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Britain’s Mi6. Because CSIS is only three years old, one intelligence official said, it depends on allied agencies to provide information that will guide it through the perils of international espionage and counterespionage. Said the official: “Canada has to do business with them to go through the minefield without getting blown up.” For the moment, though, the priority for Morden is to clean up after the wiretap affair, remove the agency from the public spotlight and return it to where it is most comfortable—in the shadows.
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