Conservatives fail in bid to bring national security adviser to testify on Atwal affair

The Conservative Party tried, but failed, to bring national security adviser Daniel Jean before a House committee to explain why he told a group of reporters that factions of the Indian government orchestrated invitations of a would-be assassin to events with Canada's prime minister in India last week.

PM has defended Daniel Jean and said the invitation was the fault of B.C. Liberal Randeep Sarai

A senior government official with knowledge of Justin Trudeau's security protocols, later identified as Daniel Jean, suggested to reporters that an invitation to Jaspal Atwal, pictured, was arranged by factions within the Indian government. (Jaspal Atwal/Facebook)

The Conservative Party has failed in its bid to have national security adviser Daniel Jean appear before a House of Commons committee to explain why he told reporters that factions in the Indian government orchestrated an invitation for a would-be assassin to attend an event with Canada's prime minister in India last week.

Conservative public safety critic Pierre Paul-Hus put forward a motion Thursday to have Jean testify in front of the standing committee on public safety and national security, but it was rejected.

Jaspal Atwal was a member of an illegal Sikh separatist group and was convicted of attempting to assassinate Indian cabinet minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu in 1986. He was also charged — but not convicted — in the 1985 attack on Ujjal Dosanjh, who later became B.C. premier and a federal Liberal cabinet minister.

Atwal attended at least one event tied to the Trudeau visit, at which he was photographed with the prime minister's wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, and Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Amarjeet Sohi. Another invitation to an event at the High Commission in India was rescinded soon after reports of it leaked out.

In a background briefing arranged by the Prime Minister's Office, a senior government official with knowledge of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's security protocols suggested to reporters that Atwal's invitation was arranged by factions within the Indian government to make the Canadian government appear sympathetic to Sikh extremism.

The Conservatives later identified that official as Jean. Trudeau also used his name in the House.

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and Jaspal Atwal were among those attending a film industry influencers event with Indian film stars in Mumbai on Feb. 20 during Justin Trudeau's tour of India. Atwal was a member of an illegal Sikh separatist group and was convicted of attempting to assassinate an Indian cabinet minister in 1986. (Name withheld by request)

Former CSIS director Ward Elcock said that theory seems like "a bit of a stretch."

"If it's true, it is very sensitive information and it would seem to me that the only reason for doing that would have been considerable political pressure," he said in an interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

Elcock told host Chris Hall that it's "puzzling" that a Canadian MP would not know who Atwal was and that he would invite him to an event with the prime minister.

The Indian government has flatly denied any involvement with the invitations.

"Let me categorically state that the government of India, including the security agencies, had nothing to do with the presence of Jaspal Atwal at the event hosted by the Canadian high commissioner in Mumbai or the invitation issued to him for the Canadian high commissioner's reception in New Delhi," said official spokesperson Raveesh Kumar. "Any suggestion to the contrary is baseless and unacceptable."

Ralph Goodale runs Randeep Sarai with reporters in tow 2:22

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who testified at the committee today, said members' questions were veering into classified matters of national security and refused to explain further why Jean briefed reporters.

Instead, he offered a general endorsement of the professionalism of public service employees.

"What I've observed is that they work very hard to be impartial, to be professional, to be non-partisan and to be guided by one thing primarily, and one thing only ... how do you best defend the national interests of Canada," he said.

Goodale put the blame for the incident firmly on Liberal MP Randeep Sarai, who has since apologized for the mishap, and said it can be tough to screen attendees at large events.

Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus, shown Jan. 31 in the House of Commons, is the party's public safety critic. He has put forward a motion asking that Canada's security adviser testify before a committee regarding the Atwal affair. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"It is difficult to deal with large attendances. The circumstance here is one in which his name should have come from a reliable source. In fact, that source made a mistake, a very serious mistake," Goodale said.

Goodale was dogged by reporters all the way from the committee room to the elevator, where — coincidentally — Sarai was headed as well. The elevator door closed as reporters were still asking questions.

Paul-Hus also tried to arrange an emergency committee meeting about the Privy Council Office's screening practices, but that attempt fizzled last week.

Independent senators delay debate

A similar effort was made Thursday by Conservative Quebec Sen. Jean-Guy Dagenais, who sought to invite Jean to appear before the Red Chamber's national security and defence committee and to call "additional witnesses" from the country's national intelligence services to explain how Atwal made it on the invite list.

Dagenais introduced a motion that was subsequently adjourned — punted to a later date — in a vote largely along partisan lines, with Independent and Liberal senators voting to defer debate and Conservatives pushing for a detailed discussion on inviting Jean to appear at the committee.

The move by Independents to shut down this debate prompted accusations from Conservative senators that the Independent Senators Group is anything but, and is rather doing the bidding of the Liberal government by staving off a potentially embarrassing committee appearance by Jean.

Virtually every Independent senator voted to adjourn debate except for three. Sen. Frances Lankin, a member of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, abstained.

Some experts, including Carleton University professor Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst, suggested the national security oversight committee, which can meet in private and discuss classified details, was best suited to study the matter and then provide details to the public in a report, at a later date, if there were irregularities.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Jaspal Atwal as Daniel Jean in a photo caption.
    Mar 01, 2018 6:20 PM ET

With files from the CBC's John Paul Tasker

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