National security adviser Daniel Jean defends controversial briefing on Atwal affair

The prime minister's national security adviser said today he acted to counter a "false narrative" about his boss's trip to India when he gave journalists a controversial briefing about how Jaspal Atwal — a man convicted of attempted murder — was invited to an event at Canada's embassy in New Delhi.

Jean said 'coordinated misinformation' threatened to turn a 'faux pas' into a 'false narrative'

The prime minister's security adviser, Daniel Jean, defended his decision to give a background briefing to reporters over the Atwal affair during an appearance at the Commons public safety and national security committee Monday. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The prime minister's national security adviser said today he acted to counter a "false narrative" about his boss's trip to India when he gave journalists a controversial briefing about how Jaspal Atwal — a man convicted of attempted murder — was invited to an event at Canada's embassy in New Delhi.

Appearing before a House of Commons committee today, Daniel Jean told MPs why he gave reporters a background briefing about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's recent trip to India.

National Security Adviser Daniel Jean tells the Public Safety committee why he briefed the media about the Jaspal Atwal affair 2:22

Jean said he offered the briefing as a way to counter the "coordinated misinformation" in the narrative that was taking hold at the time: that government officials, as well as the RCMP and CSIS, were aware of Atwal's invitation days in advance, but that the PMO did not act to rescind it. He also cited what he called inaccurate information suggesting that Atwal was part of the prime minister's delegation.

Jean said the invitation was extended by Liberal MP Randeep Sarai in error. While Atwal was no longer considered a security threat, his presence at an official tour event could be considered "embarrassing," Jean added.

'Faux pas'

"It was a faux pas. It should not have happened," he told the committee.

Jean said it was his decision to brief reporters, but added he contacted officials in the PMO for a list of reporters to contact in order to clarify the sequence of events and answer questions.

Those briefings were intended to protect the integrity of the key federal institutions, he said.

"They were trying to make that faux pas a lot bigger by fabricating false stories. My intervention was to debunk that," he said.

Jean rejected suggestions he was being used as a human shield to protect the prime minister, or had crossed the line in his duties as a public servant.

"Canadians have the right to know when people are trying to create a false narrative using three respected public institutions," he said.

Jean said he did not know who the actors spreading misinformation were, but speculated that they were private citizens or people within the Indian government who were not acting under any official directive.

After his briefings, media reports subsequently quoted an unnamed official giving a background briefing suggesting rogue elements were tied to the scandal.

Asked by Conservative MP Glen Motz whether he regretted raising "the conspiracy theory of rogue Indian elements," Jean said he never raised a conspiracy theory.

"What I said is there was coordinated efforts to try to misinform, and I said that these were either private people, it was definitely not the government of India, and if it was people from India, they were acting in a rogue way, that's what I said," he said.

'Scandal and crisis'

Conservative MP Erin O'Toole said Trudeau should apologize publicly in the House for defending the Indian "rogue element" theory. He accused the PMO of allowing Atwal's invitation to be extended through its own lax security and said the government allowed the "scandal and crisis" to fester by not allowing Jean to clarify the record.

The incident has left lingering questions about the appropriateness of anonymous briefings of reporters by government officials.

"I don't think Mr. Jean as security adviser should be doing those types of engagements, because we saw how the media narrative changed dramatically following that, and it led us to believe that was an idea of the prime minister's office," O'Toole said after the hearing.

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety Mark Holland, Conservative Deputy Public Safety Critic Glen Motz and NDP Public Safety Minister Matthew Dube discuss. 10:24

The Conservatives lobbied hard for Jean's appearance before the House of Commons' public safety and national security committee. Last month, they even held a marathon voting session on a series of motions in the House that lasted the better part of 24 hours to pressure Trudeau to let Jean testify before MPs.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he wanted Jean to explain why he tried to blame Trudeau's trouble-laden trip on "rogue elements" in India seeking to embarrass the PM and pressure him to crack down on Sikh extremists in Canada.

Today in the House of Commons, Scheer said today's testimony refutes what he called the government's previous line of defence on the scandal — the suggestion that Atwal's presence in India was somehow orchestrated. He said the government's response was "completely false."

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the opposition is on a "misguided path." He urged Scheer to attend a classified briefing, instead of choosing "willful ignorance of the facts."

"The offer has been made to provide the opposition with the full classified briefing. So far they have refused to schedule that meeting. They should schedule that meeting so the leader of the official opposition could be fully briefed," he said.

Atwal is a Canadian of Indian descent who was convicted of attempted murder for trying to assassinate Indian cabinet minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu while he was visiting Vancouver Island in 1986.

Sophie Gregoire Trudeau with Jaspal Atwal at an Indian film industry event in Mumbai in February during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's official visit to India. (Submitted by Jaspal Atwal)

Photos of Atwal posing with a Liberal cabinet minister and Trudeau's wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, at an Indian film industry event in Mumbai were sent to media outlets, including the CBC, touching off a public relations firestorm for the Trudeau government.

Sarai said he was the one who submitted Atwal's name to the High Commissioner to be added to the guest list for the dinner-reception. The Vancouver-born Sarai was one of 14 Liberal MPs travelling with Trudeau on the official visit.

The incident complicated Trudeau's efforts at the time to convince India that Canada stands firm against extremism and does not back Sikh separatism, or the violence that has been employed by some to pursue it.

'Some clarity would be helpful'

Once the media reports about Jean's off-the-record briefing surfaced, the Conservatives accused the Liberals of trying to shift the blame for the affair onto Indian officials to avoid accepting responsibility for having invited Atwal themselves.

The Conservatives asked that Jean provide the same briefing to MPs that he had given to reporters. Trudeau offered instead to have Jean give Scheer a classified briefing.

Scheer eventually agreed to the briefing, on the condition that Jean would first give the House of Commons public safety and national security committee an unclassified version of the briefing.

Jaspal Atwal reads a statement expressing his embarrassment for becoming the focal point of PM Justin Trudeau's recent visit to India. 6:08

Meanwhile, the committee of MPs and senators that oversees Canada's national security services, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), is conducting its own review of the India debacle. 

According to a statement, it will look at "specifically those [allegations] relating to foreign interference in Canadian political affairs, risks to the security of the prime minister, and inappropriate use of intelligence."

The committee will provide a classified report on its findings to the prime minister in late May. An unclassified version of the report will be tabled in both the House of Commons and the Senate.

Atwal has stated that he also wants to clear the air before a parliamentary committee, but he has not yet been cleared to testify.

With files from the CBC's Elise von Scheel

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