NOTEBOOK: What the ‘senior government official’ told media about Atwal, India, and Trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security advisor, Daniel Jean, has agreed to testify in front of a parliamentary committee. He is expected to provide to committee members — each of them Members of Parliament — the same information that was provided on background by a senior government official to a handful of news organizations about Trudeau’s recent trip to India.
The senior government official had volunteered to explain to journalists how it had come to be that a man convicted of the attempted murder of a Sikh politician in Canada — a crime the sentencing judge called an act of terrorism — ended up years later on the guest list for a reception in India with Canada’s prime minister. That convict, Jaspal Atwal, had also managed to get his picture snapped with Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and other Trudeau cabinet ministers at another reception in India. We, like most other news organizations, wanted to know what, if any, procedures were in place to do background checks for attendees at these receptions.
To answer those questions, the PMO media relations team put us in touch, “on background,” with this senior government official. That official, rather than just simply explain how or if background checks were done for attendees at events the prime minister was likely to be at, used the opportunity to advance the theory that Atwal’s presence at these receptions in India may have been engineered by the Indian government or “factions” within the government in order to embarrass the Trudeau government, which some in India consider to be “soft” on Sikh extremism.
The Indian government would subsequently issue a statement condemning that theory as “baseless and unacceptable.”
By then, in the House of Commons, this was all the Conservatives wanted to talk about, demanding in Question Period after Question Period, that someone from the government go on the record with this theory.
I had one of those background briefings with a senior government official. It was a 35-minute telephone call around dinner time on February 24. Trudeau, as we talked, was in the air on his way home from India. I spent a substantial portion of that call trying to convince this senior government official — henceforth referred to as the SGO — to go “on the record” with some of the information the official was presenting. I argued that it would be much more credible if Canadians knew who the SGO was and what position the SGO held in the government. I was unsuccessful. And the SGO insisted that our conversation could continue so long as the SGO was not identified.
Now, while I and other Global journalists have reported on the broad strokes of what a SGO had to say in multiple briefings given to journalists between February 22 and 24, here is some more detail from the briefing I had on February 24 about some of the issues subsequently raised by parliamentarians and likely to be raised when or if the Commons public safety committee hears testimony from Jean.
What was the motive? Why did this official brief reporters?
The Atwal appearance in India was deeply embarrassing to the Trudeau government and the timing and content of this briefing suggested that this SGO was being put up by political aides to the prime minister to create some political cover. Not true, says the SGO.
“It was not a request that came from the political level,” the SGO told me. “I suggested I do the background interview because there were some facts that we knew that we could not share publicly with attribution. But there were some facts that we thought the media should know. We were concerned that there was some faction of the [Indian] government or people outside of the government who were really playing the media on that thing.”
I asked who the SGO meant by “we.” Did the SGO mean politicians or political aides? No, the SGO said. The SGO meant “us, the S and I community” — S and I presumably standing for security and intelligence.
And, in laying down the terms of the engagement for the briefing, the SGO said reporters were cautioned about what it was that could be discussed and could not be discussed.
“I was not going to answer any political questions nor was I going to cross any political lines because that’s not my role,” the SGO said.
“We live in a new world, as you well know, if you see that some people are trying to feed some information that is inaccurate because they’re trying to make your institution look bad — I’m not talking about the prime minister as a person, I’m talking about the institution — and you know that this information and you see throughout the day that they keep feeding false information … so I’m the one who suggested I go on background. I was very clear on what I was going to cover and I only covered things that were public service related from a national security standpoint.”
In my 12 years reporting on Parliament Hill, no individual in this SGO’s position has ever provided this kind of briefing. Other journalists and former journalists whose experience on Parliament Hill stretches back to the days of Brian Mulroney have told me they, too, cannot recall any briefing like the one that was given by this SGO.
The SGO, though, was unapologetic for this unprecedented briefing. The SGO said countering “fake news” and other kinds of disinformation is now part of the job of the Canadian security and national intelligence community.
“We have prevented over the last two years a number of situations where foreign governments have tried to attack our institutions. And we’re going to take action to prevent that. We’re not trying to prevent an action against a Liberal institution. We’re trying to prevent an action against a cabinet minister.”
“I was alone when I did the calls on these things.”
What evidence is there, then, that Atwal’s presence was somehow engineered by or used by Indian government factions?
On this crucial issue, the SGO, in my briefing, had little more than the circumstances of the events to rely upon. Either that or, as the SGO hinted, there were secrets that could not be divulged, even on a not-for-attribution basis.
“This is where there are limits how far I can go, what I can tell you,” the SGO said. “There was enough things happening around this conspiracy to realize that there were people who wanted to steer the controversy.”
Later in our conversation, the SGO said, “There seems to be a lot of coincidences about this guy.”
That’s why the SGO told me, “We were concerned that there was some faction of the [Indian] government or people outside of the government who were really playing the media on that thing.”
How, the SGO wondered, did Canadian reporters in Canada even know that Atwal was in India? Who took the pictures of Atwal and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and how did they end up in the hands of Canadian reporters who were not at the event? Who might have been behind all of that?
“Sikhs in India are convinced that the biggest threat for them from a Sikh extremist standpoint is from countries like Canada, the United States and the U.K. And for that reason, they have a tendency not to trust that we’re going to do the right thing in terms of targeting threats.”
The SGO said this was a concern that senior security officials in the Indian government had brought up in discussions the SGO participated in during the days ahead of Trudeau’s visit.
“They feel at times [that] the way our government behaves may sound like a tacit endorsement of an independent Khalistan. I discussed that at length with my counterpart when I was in India and I told him, the prime minister is going to put in the leaders’ statement that we support a united India and he will be loud and clear when he arrives there that we support a united India. And you probably saw throughout the trip the prime minister said that.”
WATCH: Canadian politicians should pay attention to sensitivities around India-Canada relations: Dosanjh
I told the SGO that I had travelled with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on both of his trips to India and noted that Harper had been questioned about the same issues and made statements nearly identical to Trudeau’s about Canada’s belief in a united India. The SGO agreed with my observation.
The SGO said the SGO’s counterpart in India said that Canada was a reliable security partner so far as Sikh extremism goes.
“He lauded the efforts that the RCMP and CSIS are doing now to be able to make sure that we are good partners,” the SGO said.
And, towards the end of our discussion, the SGO conceded, “It may not be the [Indian] government” that was trying to use Atwal to embarrass the Canadian PM. “Those countries are so complicated that that may not be the case.”
“I don’t know if it was a faction of the government of India. I don’t know if it’s people who are panicking about Sikh extremism. I don’t know who fed all of that information at the same time. But this cannot be an accident that so much of that information was all happening at the same time and I am not a conspiracy theorist believer.”
So how did Atwal end up at these receptions?
Liberal MP Randeep Sarai was quick to take the blame for this, saying he had asked that Atwal’s name be put on the guest list for the two receptions. And the SGO told me: “There is no way at public events to vet every single individual.”
The SGO also denied a report, which first appeared in the Vancouver Sun, that the government — the security and national intelligence community — had known of Atwal’s presence in India for days ahead of time and only acted when Atwal’s presence showed up in media reports. That’s not true, the SGO said.
“We were informed first by a source which was not a media source that Mr. Atwal was on the guest list,” the SGO said. “The minute we were informed of that we did our due diligence, confirmed he was the individual and we basically told the political side you may wish to have him removed from a reputational standpoint.”
The SGO said the government was tipped to Atwal’s presence almost at the same time that the first media reports of his presence emerged.
“I checked with CSIS at all levels. In the region. In Ottawa. Nobody had ever heard of the case until the morning when we were informed who put him on the list,” the SGO said.
Is Atwal a security risk? Is he a “person of interest” to Canadian security or intelligence authorities?
“He’s not someone we are concerned about from a security standpoint. So the decision to remove him from the [prime minister’s reception] list had to do with reputational risk.”
It was clear from my conversation with the SGO that no one in Canada — or India for that matter — thinks Atwal is or was a risk to the safety of the Canadian prime minister or the prime minister’s guests.
“He is not a person of interest to our security agencies,” the SGO said.
Rather, Atwal’s presence was rightly judged by Canada’s security and intelligence community likely to embarrass the Canadian prime minister during his India trip.
Is Atwal spying for India?
Atwal’s lawyer Rishi Gill dismissed any such suggestion as ridiculous during a combative press conference on March 8. (Gill, though, refused to allow Atwal himself to speak to that issue.) The SGO, in our conversation on February 24, was less definitive. “We know that he’s been seeing Indian diplomats posted in Vancouver for some time. He’s been seeing Indian officials when they visit Canada,” the SGO said.
WATCH BELOW: Global News asks why Jaspal Atwal won’t take questions in heated exchange with lawyer
And, of course, there is the fact that Atwal, despite his conviction in Canada for trying to murder a visiting Punjab politician, was issued visas by the Indian government at least three times in recent years. That fact raised eyebrows in Canada’s security and intelligence community, the SGO said.
The SGO said “one of the most senior [Indian] intelligence officers meet[s] regularly with Mr. Atwal” though, when I asked for more detail — whether those meetings were in Canada or in India, for example — the SGO refused to say, citing intelligence confidences.
And, once again, Atwal, through his lawyer, refused on March 8 to respond to any of this.
Why did the official insist on remaining unidentified?
“I do not want to complicate what is already a complicated foreign policy situation with India,” the SGO told me.
Did the official provide any classified information to the media?
As I do not know what information the government of Canada considers secret and what it does not, I cannot answer that question. But the SGO did have this to say to me:
“There is a limit in how far I can go so the background interview would not start to give you a lot of classified [information] which I cannot do, which would burn intel [but] I just wanted to say to people, beware to buy … you know, sometimes things are not what they look like. And in this situation, I can tell you, things are not exactly what they look like.”