Despite warnings about an impending attack, the Canadian government failed to take the necessary steps to prevent the Air India bombing off the coast of Ireland in 1985, writes Eddie Cassidy.
TERRORISTS showed no mercy to the innocent victims of one of the world’s worst atrocities.
But equally, the government of Canada was not prepared for the despicable act of sabotage inflicted on the crew and passengers of Air India Flight 182.
The country’s complacency 30 years ago about threats of terrorism was compounded by what a retired supreme court judge determined was a “cascading series of errors” that contributed to the failure of the police and security forces to prevent the first-ever bombing of a jumbo jet.
One intelligence report, not acted upon, had identified the specific date of a likely bombing.
Commission head John C Major, a retired judge, was also unimpressed by the way the government and its agencies responded to the shock and emotional trauma suffered by the families of the 329 victims who perished.
“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 in the investigation, the legal proceedings and in providing information, support and comfort to the families,” said Mr Major.
However, the murderous deed that caught Canada on the hop so many years ago was a horrific terrorism act that should remain a lesson to other civilised nations.
Despite improved security measures following other disasters such as 9/11, the risks of terrorism and associated actions have become more extreme.
In its summary, the Commision of Inquiry said the finest tribute that could be paid to the victims of the bombing of Air India Flight 182 would be the creation of a rigorous aviation security system.
Mr Major commented: “This will require co-operation and resources but, most importantly, leadership from the highest levels of government.
“Canada owes this legacy to the victims and their families. The issues we addressed are issues that also confront us today, albeit in a different context.”
However, his report concluded: “Our allies are faced with essentially the same challenges. I hope that this report will not only assist our government but others as well.”
The Commission of Inquiry (see below) followed a near 20-year campaign by the Air India Victims’ Families Association for a public inquiry.
Many of the relatives, it appeared, struggled to overcome such unimaginable sufferings without the support of a country in which they were citizens.
In 2010, the prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, issued an apology on behalf of the government which finally accepted the mass murder on June 23, 1985, had been a “Canadian tragedy”.
In 2003, Canadian national Inderjit Singh Reyat pleaded guilty to a charge of manslaughter and had been sentenced to 15 years in prison.
He had created the devices that exploded aboard Flight 182 and also in a second incident at Narita Airport in Tokyo where two baggage handlers had been killed.
He remains the only person ever convicted of any crime in relation to the dreadful deeds, despite a lengthy investigation and trial which had cost C$130m (€94m), the most expensive in the country’s history.
A handful of others, believed to belong to the Sikh militant group Babbar Khalsa, were also arrested and tried.
The attacks on India’s national airline were reportedly in retaliation against the Government of India for military attacks in their homeland the previous year. The then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had sanctioned Operation Blue Star, a six-day army operation in June 1984 to secure control of a complex in the Punjab taken over by the leader of the Babber Khaldsa and armed followers. Along with other raids targeting Sikhs, a reported 492 civilians died, along with 84 Indian army personnel.
Four months later, in October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards in an act of vengeance. Subsequently, more than 3,000 people were killed in anti-Sikh riots that had followed. In June 1985, extremists based in Canada shocked the world with the Boeing 747 bombing.
The act of sabotage had been plotted in Canada; the bomb had been prepared in Canada; but, most significantly, Canada — to a certain extent — buried its head in the sand in the aftermath.
Police and intelligence services appeared to dismiss pre-bomb warnings from likely informers, while crucial information got misplaced during the investigations that followed.
Mr Major did not point a finger of blame at any one individual, but the commission’s findings determined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had not been prepared for such an act of terrorism.
In his final report, he found that although the threat of sabotage was well-known by the early 1980s, Canadian agencies still focused on hijacking, and operated as if it was the primary threat. Communications within and between security, law enforcement and transport agencies were often flawed or non-existent, it also emerged.
And he said agencies relied on different concepts of risk and what constituted a threat to security.
A lack of awareness of the threat of Sikh terrorism at agency level led to inadequate procedures and practices, and employees were often poorly trained and reflected a culture of complacency.
“There was a great deal of information available to CSIS and the RCMP before the bombing of Air India Flight 182 that should have called for enhanced security procedures and vigilance,” he said.
DURING the public hearings, a former intelligence director at the Department of External Affairs testified that he had seen an intelligence report warning Air India would be targeted the weekend of June 22-23.
The disclosure by the then Ontario Lieutenant Governor James Bartleman contradicted the government of Canada’s long-held assertion that it had no specific advance warning of the attack.
Mr Major, in his findings, said that, in addition to the information Mr Bartleman testified that he had seen, highly classified CSE information of clear potential relevance that was not provided to CSIS, including a telex in early June 1985 from Air India warning of the potential for bombs being hidden in luggage.
CSIS did not see that information either, it emerged, as the telex had not been passed on by the RCMP.
Mr Major said: “I should point out, as I do in the report, that erroneous information on this point was provided by the RCMP to Bob Rae whose investigation led to the creation of [the] Commission of Inquiry.
“This alone is disturbing, but there were other instances we discovered where government agencies were not always forthcoming to this commission. Many specific examples of aviation security lapses are detailed in the report.”
He also said the example of another witness to the inquiry, Brian Simpson,was particularly striking.
“As a summer employee, he boarded Flight 182 at Pearson Airport in Toronto without detection on the afternoon of June 22, 1985. He had complete access to the aircraft from the cockpit to the equipment at the rear. The attempts by government counsel to discredit this witness were ineffectual; as were their similar efforts with Mr Bartleman.
“Mr Simpson’s evidence revealed numerous weaknesses in security.”
It also emerged in the inquiry’s findings that, during the investigation that followed the bombing, CSIS and the RCMP were unable to cooperate effectively, or sometimes at all.
“This was particularly apparent when it came to human sources,” he had pointed out.“There were individuals in the Sikh community who claimed to have knowledge about the bombing and its perpetrators. The agencies failed to obtain that information, to preserve it for use as evidence, or to offer adequate protection to those individuals.
“Instead, they engaged in ‘turf-wars’, failed to share information, and adopted a misguided approach to the sources.
“In the end, of the three individuals who were to be the key witnesses in the Air India trial, one was murdered before the trial began, one feigned memory loss because she was too frightened to testify, and one was forced to enter the witness protection programme two years earlier than planned due to the RCMP’s inadvertent disclosure of her identity.
“Another source ended up never providing the information he was thought to have, and that information remains unknown.”
Almost immediately after the bombing, the government of the day, and subsequent governments, chose to speak with “one voice”.
The Commission of Inquiry found the amount of information that had been amassed over 25 years had been voluminous. Mr Major said the inquiry’s responsibility had been to review, analyse, and digest it all in accordance with its terms of reference for the benefit of all Canadians.
The result was a report that spanned five volumes and, according to Mr Major, the findings were “often surprising and disturbing”.
He said: “This made our assignment more difficult and often frustrated our attempts to find out what really went wrong. The Final Submissions of Government counsel tended to paint a picture of harmony and understanding, where little existed.
“At the same time, and somewhat inconsistently, the government argued: ‘That was then, this is now’ — basically suggesting that whatever weaknesses or deficiencies existed in 1985 have been fully recognised, analysed, and rectified in the present day.
“This Commission rejects that position,” he noted. “There remains a failure to recognise what went wrong, why, and what should be done today. In addition, there is a need for reform of our institutions which must not have to wait for the urgency that would arise from another terrorist attack.”
Among the recommendations was the proposed creation of a Director of Terrorism Prosecutions, appointed by the Attorney General of Canada and due to difficulties which arose with the destruction of potential evidence, there had been recommendations made on modernising the collection and retention of evidence in CSIS.
In relation to police informer privilege, an amendment of the Canada Evidence Act had been recommended to ensure the trial court in a terrorism prosecution would be responsible for making decisions on National Security Confidentiality, rather than having a two-court system with responsibility divided between the Federal Court of Canada and the Superior Court in the Province.
The commission’s findings also stressed the need for a national risk management protocol that would include all of the major players in the security system – intelligence, law enforcement, transport, air carriers and contracted services.
The commission, meanwhile, also led the way for the government to ‘right a historical wrong’ against the victims’ families.
The inquiry found that the families, in some ways, had often been treated as adversaries, as if they had somehow brought the calamity upon themselves.
Among the findings of the Commission of Inquiry were:
Government agencies were in possession of significant pieces of information that, taken together, would have led a competent analyst to conclude that flight 182 was at high risk of being bombed by known Sikh terrorists in June 1985.
The evidence of James Bartleman (director of security and intelligence for the Department of External Affairs) that, shortly before the bombing, he saw a specific threat to Air India Flight 182, was credible. The commission accepts the possibility that such a document would have been ignored and, subsequently, went missing.
Additional, highly classified, threat information was in the possession of the Communications Security Establishment. This information, which was received by the commission after the close of the hearings, was consistent with other information about the threat of sabotage and hijacking by Sikh extremists in June 1985, and indicated Indian airports were undertaking security audits in response to the threat.
Even without the evidence of James Bartleman and the Communications Security Establishment information, the amount of information collectively held by the government made the failure to implement appropriate antisabotage measures inexcusable.
The view of Canadian officials prior to the bombing that government-owned Air India was ‘crying wolf’ in order to obtain additional security for free was misguided.
The Air India memorial at Ahakista, West Cork.
Canadian Security Intelligence Service often failed to disclose promptly to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) information relevant to the criminal investigation, particularly information from human sources, or it disclosed information without sufficient detail or in a manner that prevented the RCMP from using the information.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service was mesmerised by the mantra that “Canadian Security Intelligence Service doesn’t collect evidence”, and used it to justify the destruction of raw material and information. It erased the tapes that caught coded conversations possibly related to the planning of the bombing, and its investigators destroyed their notes that recorded the information its sources provided on the Air India bombing. Both of these actions compromised the prosecution’s evidentiary position at trial.
The RCMP often prematurely discounted or failed to follow up on intelligence leads that did not conform to its primary theory of the case. For example, one suspect was ruled out based on observations, made two years after the bombing, that his hair did not look like the hair of one of the individuals who had checked in the luggage, as depicted in an imprecise composite drawing.
The RCMP investigation was plagued by internal strife. Little progress was made until the 1995 decision to review and revive the investigation, in part because of a concern about the political fallout of a public admission that the investigation was at an impasse.
Treatment of victims’ families Immediately after the bombing, the Government had issued public statements denying any mistakes.
Early on, officials from Foreign Affairs made sincere efforts to provide assistance to the families, in Canada and in Ireland, with limited resources and without the benefit of formal guidelines.
During initial inquiries in Ireland and India, instructions were issued to avoid acknowledgement that the crash was caused by a bomb.
Efforts were made to limit funds expended to respond to the concerns of the families. The civil suit they launched was settled early on by hard bargaining, before disclosure was made of much of the information now learned in the Inquiry.
The families were not kept informed about the investigation by the government, and often learned about new developments through the media. The RCMP only began to liaise with the families directly after 1995. Canadian Security Intelligence Service refused to participate.
Relationships between intelligence and evidence, and the challenges of terrorism prosecutions
There is a lack of institutionalised co-ordination and direction in national security matters. Canadian agencies have developed a culture of managing information in a manner designed to protect their individual institutional interests.
There is no “silver bullet” solution to reconciling the needs of intelligence and law enforcement.
Many of the same deficiencies in aviation security that were identified in 1985 continue to be raised.
In aviation security, there is a tendency to focus on “fighting the last war” instead of taking proactive measures.
A holistic approach to aviation security is required as terrorists continuously probe aviation security regimes, looking for weaknesses.
A culture of security awareness accepted by all stakeholders is essential to guard against complacency.
Air terminals can themselves be target-rich environments for terrorists.
While fortress-like security is applied to the more publicly visible side of civil aviation, the side that is more hidden from public scrutiny remains exposed.
Susheel Gupta: In the decades since the bombing, the families have struggled to have their voices heard.
Bereaved son recalls the kindness of Irish strangers, at odds with the indifference of Canadian officialdom
Susheel Gupta, the only child among the thousand-plus victims’ relatives to arrive in Ireland after the sabotage of the Air India 182 flight, grew up without a mother and had helped his father Dr Bal Gupta to identify her body in a makeshift mortuary in Cork.
He also recalls acts of Irish kindness, including a stranger on a Bandon street giving him a raincoat to keep dry. His message on the 30th anniversary of the disaster is “to ask everyone to take a moment to remember all victims of terrorism”.
“I was 12 years old when I woke up one Sunday morning in 1985 to the sound of our home phone ringing at about 6:35am,” says Susheel. “Within minutes, my father told my big brother and me that our mother was gone.
“Her plane had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. The sound of my father’s pain still echoes in my ears today.
“My mother Ramwati Gupta was one of 329 people killed when a bomb aboard Air India flight 182 exploded off the coast of Co Cork on June 23, 1985.
“A few days after the bombing, my father and I were in Ireland, as were close to 1,000 relatives of victims from around the world.”
However, amidst the horror and tragedy, Susheel still recalls the kindness with which the grieving families were received.
“Families were scattered throughout Cork, my father and I being in Bandon at the Munster Arms Hotel. Our days were spent walking around the town waiting for officials to call us or for any more news.
“I did not understand why store owners, people walking down the street, and folks in their homes would come up to my father and me, tears in their eyes as they would hug both of us and ask if we needed anything.
“I had never seen strangers do this to me. On one particular day, my father and I were out walking and it started to rain, not unusual, I would learn, in Ireland’s climate.
“A couple came up to us as neither my father nor I were wearing raincoats. They took off their own coats and gave one to my father while the other put hers on me, buttoned it up and said: ‘You keep this on the little boy or you will catch a cold.’ She then started crying.
“During our time in Ireland we had to look at over 100 pictures of dead bodies in the hope that we could identify and recover my mum’s body. And we did. In fact, the last image I have of my mother is of her lying on a metal table with stitches running from below her ear, down along to the middle of her chest and further.”
The suffering of the families was just beginning, however, and there was little help from the authorities.
“Our family was devastated,” says Susheel. “My brother went off to university alone; my father struggled to raise me and my brother while mourning the loss of his wife. And I tried to understand what had happened to the closest person in the world to me.
“In the decades since the Air India bombing, and up to very recently, my family and the families of the other victims of the attack have struggled to have our voices heard as victims of this appalling crime.
“During this time, Canadian authorities failed to respond to the needs of the victims’ families. Many mistakes were made in the investigation and the prosecution of those suspected of carrying out the atrocity.
“Following the immense outcry from families, the media, and the public, it was only in 2005 that the government of Canada officially recognised this as a Canadian tragedy and moved to hear the voices of the victims.
“Thankfully, in 2006, our government agreed to hold a public inquiry into many aspects of the bombing. Sadly, terrorism still exists today and is impacting innocent individuals all over the world.
“I ask everyone to remember all victims of terrorism on the 30th anniversary of this tragedy, for we must always strive in the victims’ memories to make our world a better place.
“The experience of my family, and those like mine, shows that even in tragic circumstances, the kindness of people will always be remembered and may stand out among all the other emotions as an integral factor in our lives.
“I wish I knew all of the names of those wonderful Irish citizens who looked after me when I was that 12-year-old boy in 1985. To you all, I would personally say a big thank you for that hug, that smile, that big glass of milk, those cookies, and that raincoat, which I still have today and hope to pass on to my daughter some day with the story behind how I received it.
“It may sound like a strange thing to say, but if there were anywhere in the world where my mother could have been murdered by a terrorist bomb, I take solace in the fact it was off the coast of Ireland. I say this because of the compassion we as victims’ families were shown and the respect we were given.
“It is like nothing else I have experienced anywhere in the world. The kindness of total strangers, foreigners to me at the time, was something I will never forget and will try to honour as long as I am alive, just as the people of Ireland honoured my mother and all of the Air India bombing victims and their families.”
Susheel Gupta is a lawyer and director and spokesperson for the Air India Victims’ Families Association. He is vice-chair of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal
By Sean O’Riordan
Commodore Hugh Tully: ‘I hope I never witness anything like that again. You think about it from time to time.'
Commodore Hugh Tully, who was 28 at the time of the Air India disa ster, already had 10 years in the service under his belt. However, nothing would prepare him and the predominantly young crew of LÉ Aisling for what they would encounter.
He was the executive officer (second-in-command) on the vessel when news broke about the plane.
“We were in the middle of arresting a fishing vessel about 50 miles off the coast when we got this message that an aircraft had gone down,” he said.
A boarding party had gone onto the trawler and they had to stay with it until another ship arrived to escort them back to Haulbowline.
That was 8.45am and LÉ Aisling steamed at full speed to the point off the coast where British search planes had spotted debris.
“We arrived about midday,” said Cdre Tully. “A merchantman [Panamanian-registered freighter Laurentian Fores] was already on the scene and we saw a lot of wreckage. Royal Navy helicopters had started dropping smoke floats [flares] where they saw bodies or wreckage.
“We then started coming across bodies, mostly women and children. It was particularly hard for the older crew members who were married with children. We started picking up bodies. We had Geminis [semi-rigid inflatable boats] in those days and we would send them out with divers to retrieve the bodies. They would put them into the geminis and then bring them back to LÉ Aisling.
“I was supervising the afterdeck operations that day [as the bodies were coming on board]. We had picked up 24 bodies within a few hours. Spanish trawlers which were also in the area picked up bodies and transferred them to us.”
By 2am the following morning, the ship had 38 bodies on board and it headed back to the Naval Service headquarters at Haulbowline where they were transferred to a fleet of Southern Health Board ambulances.
“I hope I never witness anything like that again. You think about it from time to time. I’ll be there again at the commemoration,” he said.
In the meantime, the British navy’s HMS Challenger took over point duty at the wreck site.
He said up to then the navy never took bodybags on ships, which immediately changed afterwards.
“I met some of the families [of those who died] at the commemoration in West Cork last year, including one couple who lost their only two children. I met the Laurentian Forest master [Capt Roddy McDougall] who goes there every year, and the man from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who led the investigation and who we worked very closely with.”
The Laurentian Forest, the first vessel at the scene, also picked up a number of bodies as well as wreckage.
Cdre Tully said the one thing that stands out for the victims’ relatives is the Irish hospitality, and many of them come year after year to the commemoration.
A native of Lucan, Co Dublin, he was appointed flag officer commanding the Naval Service in November 2013, taking over the role from Rear Admiral Mellett.
The vastly experienced officer previously held a very broad range of appointments in service, including three years as officer commanding naval operations command.
He also spent two years as a UN military observer.
John Gilroy, now a Labour Party senator, was a 19-year-old student psychiatric nurse working in Cork Regional Hospital when the bodies from the Air India disaster started arriving. He recalls the organised chaos which ensued.
He and colleagues watched “horror” as, on the Sunday, bodybags began piling up. Many of the staff had little or no information about what had occurred.
The Labour senator also remembers his “amazement” when, the following day, no one in authority had decided where the psychiatric patients on his GF unit should be relocated, “despite the fact that half the unit was being used as a morgue for the victims of the crash”.
“On the Sunday, word started to filter through that something big had occurred off the coast and the psychiatric unit would be needed [for part of the operation],” said Mr Gilroy.
“By early evening, the first bodies started to arrive. They were brought in on stretchers from army trucks. There was very little information about what had happened and to a young fellow like me there were all sorts of rumours.
“We all watched in amazed horror as the soldiers unloaded the bodybags from trucks in front of the building and brought them in through the door to the CF patients’ gymnasium which had been converted into a makeshift mortuary.
“At the time, the gym was a prefabricated building attached to the psychiatric unit and was used for occupational therapy and games for the patients.”
It was in this room that the then Cork Examiner took the iconic photo of the bodybags.
“The portering and security staff of the Regional were very much involved in helping transport the bodies from the trucks to the gym which was known as the recreational room,” said Mr Gilroy.
The senator said the lack of information had given rise to all sorts of rumours such as: ‘It was a plane crash; it had crashed into the sea, it had crashed in West Cork’.
“As our shift ended at 7.30pm [on Sunday], we knew that the hospital was at the centre of a major event, but amazingly there was still no clear idea about what had happened. Helicopters started landing on the helipad just outside the window of GF and there was a huge amount of activity.
“The ward activity continued as normal despite the fact that soldiers, officials, gardaí, and media were busy just outside the unit. Now and again a stray journalist would wander into the ward seeking to gain access to the gym.”
By Tuesday a decision had been taken to relocate the 50-patient psychiatric ward to St Stephen’s Hospital at Sarsfield’s Court, Glanmire.
“This involved packing up all the ward and moving it,” said Mr Gilroy. “As the gym was a central part in ward activities, there was loads of equipment that needed to be packed up. Amid all the bustle, somebody asked me if i would give a hand in packing up the equipment in the gym.”
He said there had been a constant stream of bodies being brought into the gym and there was a huge amount of activity taking place there.
“However, we could not see into the room as the gardaí had sealed it off and curtains were placed on the windows,” said Mr Gilroy. “This was a crime scene and security was very tight.”
He described how he went down to the gym and was met at the door by a garda.
“I was told that the crash was being treated as a crime and I had to sign a book as I entered,” said Mr Gilroy. “The guard accompanied me throughout my time in the gym and it struck me he was just as curious as myself to see what was happening.”
The first thing they noticed was the long lines of bodybags which were spread out on the floor.
“I think I counted 92 bodybags,” he said. “Each had a tag which I remember included information about the gender of the person and also what possessions they had.
“Of course, afterwards all the bodies that were recovered were identified. I think that there were 131 bodies recovered.” Amid the scenes of organised chaos, he remembers well that nobody actually asked him what he was doing there.
“There were five or six trolleys or tables on which post-mortem examinations were being conducted. I was shocked at the level of trauma on the bodies.”
again. You think about it from time to time.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved