Authorities could have prevented Air India bombing, inquiry concludes

June 18, 2010
OTTAWA - The bomb blast that killed 329 men, women and children aboard Air India Flight 182 could have been prevented but for a "cascading series of errors" by police and security agencies, a damning report on the 1985 disaster concludes.

OTTAWA - The bomb blast that killed 329 men, women and children aboard Air India Flight 182 could have been prevented but for a "cascading series of errors" by police and security agencies, a damning report on the 1985 disaster concludes.

The report - four years in the making - says government, RCMP and CSIS should have known the flight was a likely terrorist target.

Former Supreme Court justice John Major, who headed an exhaustive inquiry into the case, says agencies were not prepared for the threat of terror attacks in 1985 - and holes in the country's security systems still need plugging.

"The level of error, incompetence, and inattention which took place before the flight was sadly mirrored in many ways for many years, in how authorities, governments, and institutions dealt with the aftermath of the murder of so many innocents," Major said as he released a massive five-volume report.

His No. 1 recommendation is beefed-up powers for the national security adviser to set security policies and priorities, and oversee communication between agencies. He also calls for compensation for the families of the victims.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper welcomed the report, saying it will "bring closure to those who still grieve" and "ensure that measures are taken to prevent such a tragedy in the future."

"We thank commissioner Major for his work and once again extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends for the loved ones they lost," Harper said in a release.

The report was delivered 25 years, almost to the day, after the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history.

Major was charged with trying to find out what went wrong and what can be done to forestall a similar tragedy in the future. Major and a staff of lawyers and researchers sifted through tens of thousands of pages of classified documents and heard from more than 200 witnesses.

The five volumes of the final report total almost 4,000 pages. It includes historical narrative, Major's findings on long-disputed points and recommendations for policy reforms to improve police work, intelligence operations, airline security and the conduct of anti-terrorist trials.

Air India Flight 182, bound from Toronto and Montreal to New Delhi, exploded over the Irish Sea on June 23, 1985, brought down by a terrorist bomb stowed in a luggage compartment. There were no survivors among the 329 people on board, most of them Canadian citizens of Indian origin.

Another two people perished the same day when a second bomb went off in baggage being transferred to another Air India flight in Narita, Japan.

Both attacks were blamed on Sikh militants based in British Columbia, but only one man, Inderit Singh Reyat, was ever been convicted in the incident and that was on a reduced charge of manslaughter.

Talwinder Singh Parmar, the suspected ringleader of the plot, was arrested, then freed for lack of evidence. He left Canada for India, where he was shot dead by police in the Punjab in 1992.

Two other men, Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, were acquitted at trial in Vancouver in 2005, in a ruling that outraged the families of the bombing victims and helped lead to the Major inquiry.

A succession of family members testified before Major, reliving their harrowing experiences and grief.

Other testimony from current and former members of the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service painted a picture of strained relations between the two agencies, with key wiretap tapes erased, leads left to grow cold, investigators quitting in frustration and crucial witnesses reluctant to co-operate because they feared for their lives.

Air transport experts told of security lapses by Air India and Canadian airport authorities and regulators.

Lawyers for the families urged Major in their final submissions to find there was an "intelligence failure" by CSIS for not heading off the bombing, "institutional failure" by the RCMP and Transport Canada and "corporate failure" by Air India in its security arrangements.

Testimony began in the fall of 2006 and finished in February 2008. Federal officials later handed over thousands of pages of additional documents, complicating the drafting of the final report.

Major signed off on the finished product a year ago, but it took until the end of the year for the government to vet the report for national security implications. It took another six months after that to translate the full report into French and arrange for layout, printing and other production work.

As of March 2009, the inquiry had cost $28.7 million. The final tally is not yet in.

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