Under pressure from senior bureaucrats, the Canadian Security Intelligence Review Committee, that monitors the country's spy agency, was forced to abandon their plans to probe the agency's handling of the Air India bombing as early as 1988, a former senior official has said.
The committee, which monitors the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), was pressurised by senior federal bureaucrats and eventually had to abandon its plans to probe the issue, former chairman of the Committee Ron Atkey submitted to the inquiry commission on Thursday.
Atkey said the main concern of the federal government was that a premature airing of the affair might complicate efforts to bring the bombers to justice.
Also, the government was worried about the impact on civil suits launched by the families of the victims, he testified before the inquiry headed by former Supreme Court justice John Major.
Any adverse findings about the actions of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service would have been "not helpful to the government's case... It might have cost the government more money," Atkey told commission. <b1>
However, his revelation drew a sharp reaction from Norm Boxall, one of the lawyers for the victims' families -- many of whom have long complained of inadequate compensation in out-of-court settlements made before all the facts were known.
"If there was a concern by the government of Canada that (an investigation of CSIS) would have been detrimental to their position on civil cases... It's shameful the government would take that approach," Boxall said outside the hearing room.
But Atkey suggested that the more significant problem was the effort then underway to prosecute Inderjit Singh Reyat, who was eventually convicted in both the June 1985 downing of Air India Flight 182 and a related bombing at Narita airport in Japan.
James Jardine, the BC Crown attorney in charge of the case, made it clear he didn't want anything to get in the way of that prosecution, Atkey recalled.
"He said: 'If you get into this right now you're going to screw it up. We've got everything under control here ... we don't need an inquiry'."
Documents tabled on Thursday, show John Tait, then the federal deputy minister of justice, also told Atkey that SIRC should hold off on any investigation.
It appeared as well that Paul Tellier, then clerk of the Privy Council and the highest-ranking federal bureaucrat, was ready to intervene if necessary.
He was eventually informed by an aide that he wouldn't have to get involved after all because SIRC had reluctantly backed off.
Atkey told reporters he never took the matter up with then-prime minister Brian Mulroney or his solicitor-general, Jim Kelleher, who was the political master of both CSIS and the RCMP.
"We tried to stay clear of speaking directly to ministers in this particular context,," said Atkey.
"I assumed that the deputies were speaking for the government."
The idea of holding a SIRC investigation grew out of the committee's dissatisfaction with initial attempts by CSIS to explain how and why it erased wiretap tapes it had made of key suspects in the bombing.
CSIS insisted all the tapes had been listened to before being wiped clean and no vital evidence was lost, but Atkey said he wasn't entirely convinced that was the case.
He told the inquiry the review committee never found any evidence that CSIS was attempting to cover up mistakes.
Rather, the erasures were the resulted of "malfunctioning" at the middle management level.
That prompted a pointed intervention from Major, who asked simply: "When a plane is blown out of the sky, wouldn't you think everything in any way relating to it would be held?"
Atkey agreed that, no matter what the service's official policy on tape retention, "common sense" should have prevailed and
"everything should have been frozen."
Instead, CSIS erased more than 150 tapes and kept only 54 of Talwinder Singh Parmar, the militant Sikh separatist who was the prime suspect in the bombing that took 329 lives.
He was shot dead by Indian police in 1992.
Two other men, Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagrie, were acquitted at trial in Vancouver two years ago, leaving Reyat as the only person ever convicted in the worst terrorist act in Canadian history.
Although the victims' families argued for years for a wide-ranging inquiry into the affair, it wasn't until after the Vancouver acquittals that Major was finally appointed.