The Canadian police have admitted before the Air India Inquiry Commission probing the bombing of Kanishka plane in 1985 that it failed to follow the security protocols that required the use of bomb-sniffer dogs to help screen luggage.
All of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's explosive-sniffer dogs were away on training the day baggage containing a bomb was loaded on to a doomed Air India flight in Toronto, a former police officer said.
RCMP dog handler Gary Carlson, who was stationed in Toronto, testified before the Commission headed by Justice John Major that he and his dog Thor were on an annual refresher course in Vancouver.
The course also brought together all five other bomb-sniffer dog teams that the RCMP had stationed near airports across Canada, he said. Mounties drug dogs could not be used as backup because they were trained only to sniff out narcotics, he added.
But Carlson said that even in the months before the bombing he and Thor had never been called out to help search Air India luggage.
His testimony on this point contradicts the RCMP's previous statements to an informal inquiry conducted for the government by former Ontario premier Bob Rae.
The Mounties told Rae two years ago that bomb-sniffer dogs were available to check bags being loaded on to the Air India flight 182. The plane was blown up off the coast of Ireland in the early hours of June 23, 1985, killing all 329 aboard.
Carlson submitted that he told Air India, following the January test, that the hand-held device known as a PD-4 was not good enough for detection purposes.
He also told the airline that he and his dog Thor would be available any time they were needed to check suspicious luggage.
But Carlson and Thor were in Vancouver for a week-long training session on June 22, 1985, when the bomb was planted in the baggage of Flight 182 went undetected and 329 people died.
"All the bomb dogs from across the country were there," Carlson told the commission. "At that time we only had five or six dogs in the whole country that were trained for explosives."
There was no backup dog at Pearson because, in those days, other police forces in the Toronto did not have canine teams capable of detecting explosives.
The standard procedure, in the absence of a dog, would have been to hand search any baggage that was considered suspect, Carlson testified.
It's known, however, that there were no hand searches that weekend at Pearson.
In addition, an X-ray machine broke down and Burns Security, the firm hired by Air India to screen its baggage, had to resort to the electronic sniffer that had failed its initial trial at the start of the year.
Carlson said the hand-held PD-4 could not detect gun powder at any distance greater than one inch from a test cache of the substance. It failed to register anything at all, no matter what the distance, when tested on plastic explosives.
The Mounties did have a drug-sniffing dog on duty at Pearson the weekend of the bombing, but that animal hadn't been trained for explosives detection. Even today, said Carlson, only 10 to 15 per cent of the force's dogs specialise in bomb-detection.
"One might say we are a little bit more focussed on crime with respect to drugs than potentially suspected terrorist activity," observed Jacques Shore, a lawyer for the families of the Air India victims.
"Or another way of saying it is that there's a lot more drugs out there than there are bombs," shot back Carlson.
Previous testimony has disclosed that a Quebec provincial police dog handler was called to screen Flight 182 when it made a stop later at Montreal's Mirabel Airport.
But Serge Carignan, the now-retired officer in question, stunned the inquiry last week by saying the plane had already taken off by the time he got to Mirabel, leaving him to check only three suspect suitcases that had been pulled aside during passenger-boarding and left behind. The three bags turned out to be harmless.
Carlson, for his part, found his attendance at the training course in Vancouver was abruptly cut short after the Air India plane went down the next day off the coast of Ireland.
He was immediately recalled to resume his normal duties. "I boarded the next CP Air flight straight back to Toronto," he told the commission.
Gary Clarke, the former officer in charge of RCMP protective policing for Ontario, called it "an unfortunate set of circumstances" that all the force's bomb dogs had been off work at the same time.