Distinguished members of the committee, thank you for your time.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss with you the facts surrounding the controversy associated with the invitation of Mr. Atwal to a reception hosted by the Canadian High Commission in Delhi during the recent visit of the to India, as well as the background briefing I offered to representatives of Canadian media on February 22 and 23.
I wish to stress that the information that I am providing you today, like the information I shared with the media during the background briefings, is unclassified. While I have access to classified intelligence that can inform unclassified briefings, I always exercise caution on what I share in an unclassified context.
The first notification I received that Mr. Atwal was on the guest list for the Delhi High Commission reception planned in the context of the Prime Minister's visit to India came through the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service. CSIS received this information on February 21, 2018, at around 8 a.m. from a source, suggesting that Mr. Atwal's presence at the reception would be embarrassing to the Canadian government.
After the CSIS director informed me of the situation just before 10 a.m., I immediately asked our Privy Council Office Security and Intelligence team to contact the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to validate the information. Soon thereafter, we informed relevant officials at PCO, the Prime Minister's Office and PCO officials accompanying the in Delhi.
The RCMP confirmed that afternoon the past conviction for attempted murder on a visiting Minister of State from India in 1986. As Mr. Atwal is no longer considered a security threat by our security agencies, the issue was the controversy that his presence at the event could have generated given the nature of his past conviction. Around the same time, pictures of Mr. Atwal with members of the delegation taken the day before at a reception in Mumbai and a picture of his invitation to the upcoming Delhi reception started to circulate in the Indian media. At 7:46 p.m., the CBC published a story with these pictures. That was the first article about this in Canada.
Mr. Atwal's invitation was rescinded by the High Commission in India later that night. By mid-morning on February 22, we had assessed what we knew so far about the incident drawing on both the sequence of events, unclassified information available at that stage, and classified information: Mr. Atwal had attended the Mumbai reception and pictures of him with members of the entourage had surfaced in the media; Mr. Atwal was invited to the Canadian High Commission reception in New Delhi; the Prime Minister had publicly declared that the invitation should not have been extended, and a Canadian member of Parliament, had assumed responsibility for the invitation; in parallel, we had seen inaccurate information in the media and a number of false allegations that suggested that federal institutions had been informed before the trip that Mr. Atwal had received an invitation, had informed staff from the PMO, and that no action to reconsider the invitation had been taken.
At that time, I made the decision to offer a background briefing to Canadian media on what we knew in order to clarify facts, to answer a number of pressing questions from the media, and to alert them to the inaccurate information being circulated. In keeping with my usual practice, I discussed beforehand my proposal to offer a background briefing and the key messages I intended to deliver with both PCO colleagues and PMO officials.
The PMO communications department suggested a list of journalists I could contact in Ottawa that afternoon and evening in addition to the Canadian media accompanying the in India, who would be briefed the next day.
In the background briefings, I confirmed that I was giving an unclassified briefing on background—c'est-à-dire, no attribution by name—and I covered the following points. With regard to the invitation, I indicated that the had acknowledged that this invitation should not have been extended and that the member of Parliament, , had taken responsibility for the invitation. I said that the Prime Minister and Mr. Sarai were on the record on these facts and that I would not comment further on that aspect.
On how and when we were informed and the rationale for rescinding the invitation, I said, based on the information I had at that time, that the first notification we received that Mr. Atwal was on the guest list for the Delhi reception came from a source who informed CSIS in the early morning of February 21. I confirmed that we rapidly consulted the RCMP, the agency responsible for handling criminal matters, and notified PCO and PMO officials in Ottawa and Delhi. I confirmed that Mr. Atwal was no longer considered to be a security threat by our security agencies and that the invitation had been rescinded because of the controversy that could erupt given the nature of his past conviction.
I answered a number of questions around security screening for guests at receptions, and questions also around no-fly lists.
I then told media representatives that inaccurate information around the invitation of Mr. Atwal was being circulated. I referred them to the title of an Indian Express story published on February 22, which suggested that a Canadian citizen entered India after a 38-year ban as part of the 's delegation. I indicated that this was misleading as the individual was not on the official delegation for the visit.
I noted that while the Government of Canada is glad when a Canadian citizen can resolve travel restrictions, the government had not intervened with the Indian government to remove any member of the official delegation from an interdiction to travel to India. I said that questions related to interdictions to travel to India should be directed to the Government of India.
With regard to Mr. Atwal, I said that we understood that after having difficulties travelling to India for several years, he was removed by the Indian government from the so-called blacklist in 2017 and allowed to travel there last summer as someone who is presumably no longer considered a threat, and no longer espouses the cause of an independent Khalistan. Mr. Atwal now meets with Indian diplomats in Canada and Indian officials, which is the normal process for people who go through the blacklist process. Articles subsequently published in The Indian Express and The Times of India confirm that information.
On February 24, The Times of India confirmed that Jaspal Atwal was reformed, was off the blacklist, and had been engaging with the government for three years. When you read the articles, it explains the number of officials you would normally meet through that process. In the second article—from March 9, the day after Mr. Atwal gave his press conference—the official spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs did confirm that Mr. Atwal had been removed from the blacklist in 2017 as part of a conscious effort by the Indian government of outreach with diaspora who were reformed.
I also described at that time two unfounded allegations made to the media suggesting that the PMO had been informed, days before the trip, of Mr. Atwal's presence on the guest list but that no action had been taken to rescind the invitation. It was indeed reported that CSIS had been alerted days before, and I had informed the 's Office. CSIS has no record or recollection of such an earlier alert. CSIS confirmed that the first notification they got came on February 21 around 8 a.m.
An allegation was also made that the RCMP, Surrey detachment, had been alerted several weeks before the trip that Mr. Atwal was on the guest list and had alerted the PMO. Upon hearing the allegation, the PCO contacted senior officials at RCMP headquarters, who in turn contacted both RCMP Surrey and the 's protective detail, who then confirmed that no such alert had been received.
With regard to attribution, as reported by journalists who received the briefing, including Tonda MacCharles and Alex Ballingall of the Toronto Star, and John Ivison of the National Post, what I said was that we had concerns that this seemed to be coordinated misinformation by actors, possibly to exacerbate the faux pas—the fact that an invitation that should not have been made had been made—in order to reinforce the notion that Canada is complacent on the risk of extremism, a perception that has been brought, at times, by Indian intelligence services, and one that we do not share.
Let's look at what the people who were briefed actually said. In the Toronto Star:
||When the Star had asked those same questions last week of a senior Canadian official who spoke on condition of anonymity, the answer was: “I want to be very clear: I am not saying that the government of India set us up."
||However, the official did suggest that there are “people in India” who would benefit from fuelling the controversy over whether the Trudeau government is “complacent on terrorism”—an allegation the Liberal government flatly denies.
In the National Post, John Ivison wrote:
||I received a briefing from a senior security source last week.... He did not allege the Indian government engineered Atwal's invitations to the events in Mumbai and New Delhi. In fact, he said Sarai was the source of the invitation and either ignored Atwal's conviction because it was 30 years old, or was unaware of his nefarious past.
||But he did suggest Atwal was removed from the blacklist by the Indian government—a fact also reported by the Times of India and other Indian media, which claimed it happened in July 2017.
He also alluded to the Canadian Press...upon return, Mr. Atwal had consulted his passport and confirmed that he had travelled. He had stamps in India in January and August 2017.
After I had completed the background briefings by phone with the Canadian media in Delhi on the morning of February 23, the PCO and the PMO communications brought to my attention a story published that morning, which suggested that a Surrey Punjabi media outlet had sent an anonymous tip to the Canadian high commission that Mr. Atwal was going to attend the Mumbai reception and that if the tip had immediately been acted upon, the whole controversy could have been avoided. We immediately queried the high commission. We confirmed that the tip was actually received after Mumbai, before Delhi, and it would not have made any difference.
In regard to the relationship with India, I want to stress that we take the relationship with India very seriously. Beyond sustained efforts to broaden the foreign policy relationship and grow bilateral trade, we also strive to be good security partners. Canada was not spared from violent extremism actions. We remain vigilant to any potential threat and work closely with our Indian partners within the Canadian legislative framework, including the charter.
Over the last year, our security and intelligence agencies have worked constructively to enhance co-operation with their Indian counterparts. Prior to the 's visit to India, senior officials from the RCMP and CSIS travelled to Delhi. I met with my NSA counterpart the week before, and he told me how pleased he was with the co-operation of the RCMP and CSIS.
With regard to the invitation to Mr. Atwal, I wish to stress that throughout the incident, on the 21st and 22nd, I made several attempts to connect with my Indian counterpart by phone, and I emailed him to thank him for the good exchanges we had the week before, as well as to express our regrets over the controversy resulting from the invitation and explain that it had been rescinded.
In conclusion, I have now had the chance to share with you all relevant unclassified information that I'm privy to with regard to this issue. As you can see, the background briefing that I offered included both a faithful description of the sequence of events and answered a number of pressing questions from the media. I felt it was important to alert the Canadian media to the misinformation being circulated, notably the unfounded allegations that public institutions—first, CSIS; secondly, the RCMP; and third, our diplomatic mission in Delhi—had been informed ahead of the Mumbai reception that Mr. Atwal was on the guest list and that these institutions had relayed the information to the PMO in time to prevent the controversy. The paper trail will show that all these allegations are false.
Finally, I want to thank officials in the international security and intelligence community, who, as you can see from the sequence of events, did not spare any effort during an intense 48 hours.
I have three points in response to that.
Two of the positions I've held at the Privy Council Office have involved crisis management, cabinet secretary for operations and national security advisor. I have also worked in positions abroad. In Haiti, for instance, I was constantly managing crises during two coups d'état.
During a crisis, it's important to establish the facts as soon as possible, to prevent the spread of misinformation. It's also important to answer technical questions. Furthermore, when misinformation starts circulating, as it did in this instance, the ability to set the record straight is essential.
Over the past two years, we've seen the emergence of what is known as information warfare all over the world. You start with something that is true and add elements that are completely false in an effort to embellish the facts. Like every intelligence and security community around the world, we are examining the issue to figure out how to prevent and combat this type of warfare.
Our analysis clearly shows that, when the information is available ahead of time, it's very easy to call on the media, and that is evident from our interview with Mr. Akin. The analysis also shows that, whenever that step is taken before the situation has played out, the person dealing with the media has to field very tough questions, such as those I'm being asked today.
Afterwards, people all of a sudden realize that that person may have been right. It happened to a predecessor of mine a few years ago. As I told him some weeks back, the outcome brought him vindication.