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How Trudeau’s top national security advisor lost the plot in India

Terry Glavin on Daniel Jean’s preposterous conspiracy theory around the Atwal affair and what it says about Canada’s mixed up foreign relations
Canada’s Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Jean addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015 at U.N. Headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Canada’s Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Jean addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015 at U.N. Headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

It’s all out in the open now. The Conservatives have put it to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons, and Trudeau’s response will no doubt be followed by frantic telephone calls to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, begging for forbearance and understanding. In any case, it is difficult to see much distance remaining in the career trajectory of Daniel Jean, Trudeau’s hand-picked National Security and Intelligence Advisor. Not after this.

As everyone in Ottawa knows, Daniel Jean was the anonymous “senior security source” who showed up in the news media out of nowhere last week with a preposterous conspiracy theory to explain why the former Khalistani terror-group member, convicted would-be assassin and Liberal Party fixture Jaspal Atwal was showing up in India on Trudeau gala guest lists.

On Parliament Hill today, Conservatives were saying Jean’s name out loud, and peppering Trudeau in the House of Commons. Without many other options, Trudeau responded by defending Jean as a sensible, non-partisan civil servant, but going further, suggesting that when a official of Jean’s rank says something,  “it’s because they know it to be true.”

For a while there, it looked like there was a glimmer of good news to come from the cringe-making embarrassment and breathtaking incompetence that attended to Trudeau’s absurd fashion-show caravan at every turn as it trundled across India last week. It looked like the long overdue Canada-India Framework for Cooperation on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism had not been sabotaged, after all, by Daniel Jean’s unaccountably bizarre, last-minute intervention.

That is not so certain now. Not with Trudeau, contradicting his own earlier statements, suggested to the House of Commons that Jean’s conspiracy theory might just be true.

Daniel Jean is a career bureaucrat who came to Canada’s top job in national security and intelligence out of his post as deputy foreign affairs minister in May, 2016, with no discernible credentials in either national security or intelligence.

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau in the real world

Last week, asked by the Prime Minister’s Office to explain to curious journalists the operation of protocols surrounding the vetting of guests at the venues on Trudeau’s India tour, Jean instead floated a thrilling yarn positing that India’s spymasters or rogue elements within India’s spy agencies could have plotted and orchestrated the whole Atwal thing, all in order to make Trudeau look bad.

As it turned out, this was an alibi far too flimsy for Trudeau to attempt. Trudeau dismissed the whole thing.  Jean has not returned Maclean’s calls.

Allowing a government official to remain unnamed is a fairly commonplace practice in reporting run-of-the-mill news stories. Importantly, it’s based on a relationship of trust between the press and the government that the information being provided is factually accurate and fair. Some journalists were extremely reluctant to report Jean’s allegations because his insinuations were so outlandish, the story would have to be anonymously-sourced, and it depended on a single unnamed official. In any case, as things quickly turned out, Jean’s conspiracy theory collapsed under the first featherweight of scrutiny.

But now it’s out in the open, and now everybody knows that the character who set in motion the central drama in a calamity that the Times of India calls “a disaster that has little parallel in India’s recent diplomatic history” was Daniel Jean.

For quite some time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been seeking assurances and hoping for evidence that whatever Trudeau’s avant-garde eccentricities, Canada’s intelligence and security files were being managed by grownups, and the recent resurgence of Khalistani terrorism in the Sikhs’ ancestral homeland of Punjab—much of it said to be financed and organized in Canada— was being taken seriously in Ottawa.

Indian government officials had been pushing for the terrorism cooperation pact Trudeau and Modi signed last Friday because of the role Canada has played in inadvertently providing a safe haven for Khalistani bagmen, gunrunners and fugitive terrorists. In recent months, several Canadians have been named in terrorism-related arrest warrants issued in Punjab. Jean was involved in the terrorism framework talks, the week before Trudeau arrived in India. His 11th hour tracks-covering spy conspiracy gambit wasn’t what you would call a confidence-building measure.

In the House of Commons today, Trudeau may have compounded the distrust by an order of magnitude.

Indian officials did not mysteriously lift Atwal’s name from a visa blacklist last summer, as Jean had anonymously claimed. Atwal has visited India several times since being released from jail for his role as the triggerman in the attempted assassination of Punjab cabinet minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu, who was visiting British Columbia for a nephew’s wedding in 1986. Atwal was sentenced to 20 years. Sidhu was eventually assassinated by Khalistani terrorists in India, in 1991.

For several years now, Atwal has been claiming that he’s a changed man. The Indian government appeared to be taking him at his word. Atwal is among at least 150 people whose names have been taken off India’s visa blacklist over the past few years, but the process has been sabotaged by officials in Ottawa, a prominent British Sikh activist told the Hindustan Times on Saturday.

Jasdev Singh Rai, a leader of Britain’s Sikh Human Rights Group and a frequent visitor to Canada, says the Trudeau government has been ruining efforts to reconcile Canada’s Sikh separatist leaders with Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In consultation with Sikh leaders in the United Kingdom, the BJP is said to have convinced the government in New Delhi to remove several British Sikh leaders from India’s visa blacklist. The hope was that the model could be applied in Canada, too.

The effort has gone nowhere. In November, 2016, Rai had arranged for BJP leader Ram Madhav in Toronto to meet with a cross section of pro-Khalistan Canadian Sikhs. At the last minute, however, Rai was denied entry to Canada. In Rai’s absence, Canada’s pro-Khalistan leaders refused to meet Madhav. In January, 2017, more than two months later, Rai was informed that he’d been barred from Canada on security grounds.

Rai also claims that he is only one of about 100 Sikh leaders in the U.K. that Canada has placed on a Khalistani blacklist of Ottawa’s making. The Trudeau government has “obstructed the peace dialogue process between the Modi Government and Sikh separatists,” Rai said. All of this rather turns the tables on Daniel Jean’s story.

Add to the mix a decision by more than 90 Sikh temples worldwide to bar Indian diplomats, a campaign that was begun in Mississauga two years ago. Toss in for good measure Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, along with New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh (whose name is on India’s visa blacklist, last time he checked), associating themselves with the case of British Sikh Jaggi Johal, arrested last year on charges of gunrunning for Khalistani terrorists in Punjab. The result looks nothing like a healthy and productive Canadian relationship with India. And now, this conspiracy theory, apparently endorsed, or almost, by Canada’s prime minister.

Sajjan and Jagmeet Singh have mostly just protested Johal’s alleged torture at the hands of Punjab police. The problem is that Johal’s core supporters are notorious for circulating bloodcurdling ethno-nationalist propaganda. They openly declare their admiration for Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale, leader of the Khalistani terror that resulted in the deaths of thousands in the early 1980s, and Talvinder Singh Parmar, the Canadian mastermind of the 1985 Air India bombing.

It’s worth remembering that long before the Air India atrocity, Parmar was wanted in India on several murder charges, but he was allowed to plot, plan and organize as a free man in Canada.

Johal was arrested in connection with investigations into the arming and funding of terror cells and a wave of targeted assassinations in Punjab over the past three years. At their meeting last Wednesday with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, Trudeau and Sajjan were presented with the names of nine Canadians, at least five of whom are wanted on a variety of terrorism-related charges in Punjab.

It was into this maelstrom of deep distrust, genuine alarm and paranoia that Daniel Jean chose to introduce his fanciful story last week, with Trudeau and his ministers innocent victims of an Indian spy plot, and Atwal in the role of Indian intelligence asset, gormless dupe or double agent. Within 24 hours, the story collapsed.

Surrey Centre Liberal MP Randeep Sarai fessed up to having secured Atwal’s invitation to the Bollywood reception for Trudeau on Wednesday in Mumbai, where Atwal was first noticed, posing for photographs with Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi and Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Gregoire. Sarai also secured Atwal’s formal invitation to Trudeau’s Thursday evening dance-off and reception, hosted by the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi.

On Thursday, Sarai confessed that it was he who greased the wheels for Atwal in India, not some cell of cunning Indian spies. “Let me be clear—this person should never have been invited in the first place,” Sarai said. “I should have exercised better judgment, and I take full responsibility for my actions.”

Trudeau issued a similar statement of regret: “The individual in question never should have received an invitation and as soon as we found out we rescinded the invitation immediately.” Over the weekend, Trudeau spokesperson Cameron Ahmad confirmed that the Prime Minister’s Office is most certainly not floating a conspiracy involving secret agents engaged in black ops designed to make a laughing stock of Trudeau.

Atwal isn’t exactly an international man of mystery, either. He has been a high-profile Liberal Party personality in Surrey, B.C., for some years, serving until recently on the executive of the Liberal Party’s Fleetwood—Port Kells executive committee. Atwal campaigned vigorously for Sarai in the 2015 federal election. He is well known to almost all the players in this story. He claims to be a “friend” of Trudeau’s (a claim Trudeau denies). He has also taken pains to be photographed with Trudeau, Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff and other Liberal heavyweights.

Atwal’s story is all quite intriguing, but so is the story of Daniel Jean. When he was appointed Trudeau’s national security and intelligence adviser nearly two years ago, it was explained that Jean’s administrative talents made up for his lack of experience in either national security or intelligence. Jean replaced Richard Fadden, a former Deputy Minister of National Defence who had also served for several years as the director of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service.

Fadden had become estranged from the Liberal Party establishment for his insistence that foreign powers, notably the Chinese Communist Party, had cultivated agents of influence at various levels of government in Canada. Fadden’s concerns have since been borne out by a series of revelations, not least a Financial Times investigation last October that turned up an internal document prepared by the overseas section of Beijing’s United Front Works Department.

The document, a training manual, boasted about the electoral success of at least 10 Beijing-friendly Canadian politicians. “We should aim to work with those individuals and groups that are at a relatively high level, operate within the mainstream of society and have prospects for advancement,” the manual advises. This is the sort of thing that has been lately a cause for alarm among senior intelligence officials in Germany, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. In Canada, not so much.

Jean’s approach to China represents a dramatic departure from the cautions counselled by earlier national security officials, including Fadden and Ward Elcock, Deputy Clerk for Security and Intelligence of the Privy Council Office. Jean’s advice has also gone against the objections of the Justice Department, human rights groups and U.S. intelligence agencies.

Last June, Jean and senior Communist Party Wang Yongqing, Secretary-General of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China, hammered out a cyber-hacking deal that purports to protect private Canadian corporations from intellectual property theft. The deal contains no provisions addressing Beijing’s hacking of government institutions, like the 2014 hack of the National Research Council’s computer mainframe in Ottawa, which cost the agency hundreds of millions of dollars and compromised enormous volumes of public and private data.

While he was Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2015, Jean was urging the government to proceed with an extradition treaty with China. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Justice Department lawyers oppose a treaty on the grounds that the Communist Party often conflates its efforts to tackle corruption with intra-party vendettas and purges, and China’s justice system fails to meet the basic tests of an independent judiciary—conviction rates exceed 95 per cent. A few months after his appointment as national security adviser, Jean was in Beijing inaugurating talks aimed at an extradition treaty and a “transfer of offenders” treaty.

Last year, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains approved the controversial $1 billion sale of one of B.C.’s largest retirement home chains to Anbang Insurance, an opaquely structured Chinese conglomerate with reported assets of $392 billion. Last week, while Bains was in India, the Chinese Communist Party seized control of Anbang and all of its assets worldwide. Anbang is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chinese government.

Also last year, without a full national security review, the Trudeau government green-lighted the sale of Norsat International to the Chinese telecom behemoth Hytera, a branch of Beijing’s surveillance apparatus facing a lawsuit from Motorola alleging massive intellectual property theft. U.S. intelligence officials, along with Fadden and Elcock, sharply criticized the Norsat deal on national security grounds. Last March, Ottawa approved a similar Chinese takeover of ITF Technologies in deal that had been blocked during Fadden’s tenure.

Contrast the Trudeau government’s willingness to accommodate the increasingly belligerent regime in Beijing, the world’s foremost police state, with its cavalier indifference to the security concerns of Mother India, the world’s largest democracy, and you’ll see why Prime Minister Modi and Chief Minister Amarinder Singh have been a bit worried about us lately.

They have a point.