Erasing wiretap evidence was 'default' CSIS policy, Air India inquiry told

Canada's security agency destroyed wiretapping evidence on suspects in the Air India bombing as part of a 'default' policy and not for ulterior motives, the inquiry heard Wednesday.

Canada's security agency destroyed wiretapping evidence on suspects in the 1985 Air India bombing as part of a "default" policy and not for ulterior motives, the former head of the agency's counterterrorism section said Wednesday.

Former CSIS official James Warren testifies at the Air India inquiry in Ottawa on Wednesday. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

In his early testimony at the Air India inquiry in Ottawa, James Warren, now retired from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said he deeply regrets the tapes were destroyed.

"Should the tapes have been erased at all, given the circumstances?" commission counsel Mark Freiman asked him.

"Certainly from the point of view of someone who had to deal with the aftermath, I wish dearly that they had not been destroyed," Warren replied.

"I think we all would have wished they all would have survived for whatever value they might have had."

Warren's testimony painted a different picture of events than that of former Crown counsel James Jardine, who told the inquiry on Tuesday that CSIS balked at his repeated requests for the agency to share its intelligence to be used in prosecuting suspects in the case.

"I found absolutely nothing in files to suggest a request had ever been made or that anyone had ever considered saving the tapes," Warren said.

The recordings of hundreds of hours of phone calls made in 1985 by Talwinder Singh Parmar, a well-known Sikh extremist and a prime suspect in the Air India bombing, were later erased by CSIS. Some written summmaries of the calls survived.

The wiretap recordings were made three months before the flight blew while en route from Canada to India on June 23, 1985, killing all 329 people aboard, including 280 Canadians.

Nothing 'nefarious' in decision to destroy tapes

Warren said he conducted his own review of what happened and said he found no indication of a coverup in destroying the tapes, just"junior" officers following policy that should have been amendedfor the case.

"I never saw anything that suggested that there hadbeen anything nefarious in that decision,"he said.

"The only conclusion that I was able to come to was that the tapes had been destroyed in accordance with the policy that was our default mode, if you will, and that apparently, no one had thought to move them out of a default situation."

While Warren said he was assured by front-line investigators that all the tapes had been reviewed, inquiry lawyer Freiman said documents suggest no one really knew how many tapes were made.

Warrendescribed Jardine,who later successfully prosecuted Inderjit Singh Reyat, the only person ever convicted in connection to the bombings, asa"tough negotiator."

"We had our differences," Warren told the inquiry. "I certainly concede that he was making life difficult for me from time to time, but that was his job."

In the weeks following the bombing, Jardine described the erasure of the tapes as "inconceivable" incompetance on the part of CSIS.

Warren said he didn't share the belief of his former CSIS colleague, Ian MacEwan, who wrote in a memo that Jardine was looking for a "fall guy" in case he lost his case.

CSIS 'not in the business of collecting evidence'

Warrenalsosaid CSIS agents were influenced by the priorfindings of the McDonaldCommission,whichled to the creation of CSISin 1984 and emphasized the importance of separating the role of a police force from the role of an intelligence service.

"We were not in the business of collecting evidence; that was a role for police," Warren said.

"We drummed it into our people, 'You are no longer policemen. You may have joined the force as a policeman, but as of the 16th of July, 1984, you don't collect evidence. You collect intelligence.' "

On Monday, a senior RCMP official told the inquiry he believed the task force probing the bombing had a deal with CSIS to retain any tapes that could be used as evidence.

Air India Flight 182 explodedoff the coast of Ireland as it flew from Canada to India, via London. A second bomb exploded at Tokyo's Narita airport, killing two baggage handlers.

During the Air India trial in 2003, defence lawyers forced the government to concede thatCSIS's destruction of the wiretapping evidencewas a case of "unacceptable negligence."

The surviving transcription notes of thetapesindicate Parmar had conversations with a contact in Germany about a plot to assassinate former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The conversations were recorded using a wiretap on the phone in Parmar's Burnaby, B.C., home. Parmar moved to India and was killed in 1992, in what Indian police described as a gun battle.

A B.C. Supreme Court judge in 2005 acquitted Vancouver businessman Ripudaman Singh Malik and Kamloops sawmill worker Ajaib Singh Bagri on eight charges related to the bombing.