Security adviser says he tried to dispel misinformation about India controversy
Joan Bryden and Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, April 16, 2018 2:18PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, April 16, 2018 6:45PM EDT
Justin Trudeau's national security adviser says it's the Canadian government's fault that a convicted attempted assassin was invited to events with the prime minister during his trouble-plagued trip to India.
But Daniel Jean pointed Monday to a "co-ordinated misinformation" campaign about the gaffe to justify his controversial assertion that factions in India tried to sabotage Trudeau's February visit.
Jean was testifying before the House of Commons public safety and national security committee about a background briefing he gave reporters during the trip, in which he suggested rogue elements in India were behind the embarrassing revelation that Jaspal Atwal had been invited to two events with Trudeau.
Atwal, a B.C. Sikh convicted of attempting to assassinate an Indian minister in 1986 during a visit to British Columbia, was photographed at one event in Mumbai with the prime minister's wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau. His invitation to a second event was rescinded after news of his presence broke.
During the media briefing, Jean advanced the theory that rogue factions in India may have arranged for Atwal's attendance in a bid to prevent Prime Minister Narendra Modi from becoming too cosy with a foreign government they believe is sympathetic to extremist Sikh separatists.
On Monday, Jean acknowledged there would not have been a scandal had Liberal MP Randeep Sarai not asked for Atwal to be added to the guest list or if the names on that list had been vetted by the Prime Minister's Office.
"It was a faux pas. It should not have happened," he told the committee.
But he added: "There were people who were trying ... to make that faux pas a lot bigger by fabricating false stories and my intervention was to debunk that."
Once news of Atwal's presence surfaced, Jean said there appeared to be a co-ordinated campaign to peddle false stories that Atwal was a member of the Canadian delegation and that the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Canadian High Commission in India had all been alerted to his presence on the guest list days earlier but had done nothing. He cited incorrect reports by both Indian and Canadian media.
It was those false reports, he said, that prompted his decision to brief reporters.
"I think that if you have actors who are trying to fabricate a narrative that is totally untrue and are using three of our most respected public institutions to do that, I think there has to be someone who is neutral who can come in and alert the media on that. That's why I did it."
During his committee appearance, Jean placed his intervention in the context of the broader campaign by national security officials to prevent foreign interference in domestic political affairs or elections.
He did not suggest the Indian government arranged for Atwal's presence during Trudeau's trip, but did note it last year took Atwal off the blacklist that had banned him from entering the country for more than 30 years.
Jean said the first he or anyone in government knew about Atwal's presence was the morning of Feb. 21 when a source tipped CSIS. "Within a matter of hours" photos of Atwal's invitation and of him posing with Trudeau's wife and cabinet ministers had made their way to the media and shortly after that the false stories began to appear.
In his media briefing, Jean said he went out of his way to stress that he wasn't accusing the Indian government of trying to sabotage the trip. Rather, he said he wasn't able to identify the source but told reporters the disinformation campaign could have come from rogue factions in the Indian government or from a private citizen in that country.
The Conservatives have accused the Prime Minister's Office of instructing Jean to conduct the briefing and concoct a conspiracy theory in a bid to deflect blame for Trudeau's disastrous trip.
Conservative MP Glen Motz asked Jean if he regrets "raising the rogue Indian conspiracy theory."
"I never raised a conspiracy theory," Jean replied. "What I said is that there was co-ordinated efforts to try to misinform."
Motz also directly asked Jean if the PMO put him up to the briefing "to try and do damage control" for Trudeau.
Jean, who is about to retire after more than 30 years as a diplomat and public servant, replied: "Sir, at the stage where I am in my career, I don't think I would be trying to do something like that.
"Doing the easy thing would have been to stay away from it and, of course, Canadians would have had a lot more misinformation implicating public institutions that are respected. I chose to do the right thing, sir, and through all my career, I've always done the right thing."
"I believe you," responded Motz.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O'Toole wasn't so charitable, arguing that Jean should have left it to the PMO to counter the disinformation on what he dubbed "minor issues."