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ANDREW MITROVICA in Toronto JEFF SALLOT in Ottawa

Key information in the probe into the Air-India bombing, the worst mass murder in Canadian history, was destroyed by a Canadian Security Intelligence Service agent 14 years ago in the midst of a turf war with RCMP investigators.

A counterintelligence officer involved in the probe said he destroyed hours of audio-taped interviews with two confidential sources in defiance of orders to hand over the tapes to the RCMP. He has only now come forward because he said he wants to set the record straight.

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The key informants -- members of the Sikh community in Vancouver -- were not handed over to the Mounties by the veteran CSIS agent early in the investigation because he believed the Mounties would not be able to protect the identities of his coveted sources.

The agent, who asked not to be identified, said his actions were the result of a fierce turf war between the RCMP and CSIS that marked the early stages of the Air-India probe. The RCMP and CSIS conducted separate probes rather than working together on the 1985 bombing, which killed 329 people, most of them Canadians.

The CSIS investigation was so badly bungled that there was a near mutiny by CSIS officers involved in the probe, the agent added.

"[I]destroyed the tapes and the sources were cut loose. I told them [the sources]I was no longer able to protect their identities," said the agent, a former member of the Air-India investigative team.

"We were told to hand over our human sources and the tapes to the RCMP . . . [but]unless we could get an ironclad undertaking that these people wouldn't appear in court, it was a no go," the counterintelligence source said. "If their identity had become known in the Sikh community, they would have been killed. There is no doubt in my mind about that."

In retrospect, the destruction of up to 150 hours of taped interviews and the cutting loose of the informants may have prolonged the investigation by years, the agent said. The RCMP and CSIS have spent more than 14 years and $26-million investigating the bombing, making it one of the longest and most expensive police investigations in Canadian history.

The Mounties have reportedly identified five suspects as being involved in the conspiracy to blow up the Air-India plane. One key suspect, Talwinder Singh Parmar, died in a shootout with Indian police in 1992.

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In late 1998, the Mounties handed over their long-awaited Air-India report to British Columbia's Crown Counsel office for review. To date, no charges have been laid and the tragedy remains unsolved.

CSIS spokesman Dan Lambert said the service "categorically denies that any audio tapes from investigators were ever destroyed." RCMP spokesman Corporal Grant Learned said the Mounties enjoy good relations with CSIS and had no comment on what he described as "our ongoing investigation."

However, the counterintelligence agent said CSIS's official response is misleading and inaccurate.

The tapes were indeed destroyed in an incinerator that sits atop the old CSIS headquarters on West Broadway Street in Vancouver, the agent said. The incinerator, counterintelligence sources said, was regularly used by agents to destroy sensitive material. "I took our tapes up there and dropped the cassettes in and watched them melt away," the agent said.

The officer said he felt compelled to destroy the tapes because he was morally obliged to do everything in his power to protect the safety of his sources. "[I]decided it was a moral issue."

(In a 1992 report, CSIS's watchdog, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, found that CSIS erased all but 54 of 210 surveillance tapes of Sikh militants, as part of routine practice. But the report made no mention of the CSIS interview tapes or the failure to turn over the informants to the Mounties. This is the first time the unilateral destruction of scores of interview tapes by a CSIS agent of pivotal informants has been made public.)

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Another CSIS officer who worked on the probe said agents were loath to hand over their cherished sources to the RCMP and when they did, the sources were often reluctant to co-operate with police, for fear that their names would be disclosed in court.

"It was tough to get them [the sources]and when you get them, you want to keep them," said the former agent, who left CSIS because of burnout. "They didn't want to be handled by the police because they knew if their information was good, they might end up in court."

Other CSIS agents who were involved in the probe expressed surprise when told that one of their colleagues destroyed the interview tapes and let the key informants go.

The Sikh informants were originally contacted by CSIS agents after they hinted broadly in telephone conversations that they were prepared to co-operate with authorities.

Their telephones were tapped during these conversations.

The informants were carefully cultivated by CSIS officers in Vancouver. The officers were under intense pressure from their superiors and in fierce competition with the RCMP to identify key suspects in the bombing. The sources provided the service with valuable information about key bombing suspects and others involved in the elaborate conspiracy to destroy the plane.

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"We had two very good sources, who were putting the pieces of the puzzle together," an intelligence source said.

The agents intended to send one interview tape to the RCMP, but it was inadvertently erased and a recording of a stress-management lecture was delivered to the unamused Mounties by mistake, a source added.

The destruction of the taped interviews and the dismissal of the informants -- who were prepared to participate in undercover operations -- prevented the Mounties from acquiring vital information about key bombing suspects, one source said.

The continued service of the informants might have shortened the probe by years, the source believes.

"This could have been wrapped up in a couple of months," he added.

The CSIS probe into the bombing was extensive. A contingent of officers, including a number pulled in from Ottawa and Toronto, were involved in the investigation.

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But it was marked by disorganization, withering pressure from superiors for tangible results, duplication of work done by the Mounties and internal bickering, which culminated in a near mutiny by the CSIS agents involved.

A major problem from the beginning was that there were no Punjabi speakers among the CSIS and RCMP investigators. Wire-tapped phone conversations were promptly translated into English, but thousands of pages of transcripts, called "red-edge" classified intercepts, were routinely dumped on the desks of CSIS agents in no apparent order or ranking of significance.

As a result, a source said, critical information was often passed over or completely ignored.

RCMP and CSIS investigators were often tripping over the same leads, pursuing similar informants with a competitive zeal that rivalled a Stanley Cup hockey game, a source said. "The competition often reached a fever pitch . . . it was a turf war."

The rivalry was sparked by resentment among RCMP officers that they had been stripped of their responsibilities for counterterrorism investigations. Bad blood between the two agencies ensued and persists even today.

Conservative Senator James Kelleher, who took over as solicitor-general in 1986, said the bad blood between the RCMP and CSIS was soon evident to him. He held separate weekly meetings with the RCMP commissioner and the director of CSIS, and progress on the Air-India case was always on the agenda.

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He said could not press the Mounties for too many details of their investigation because it is improper for the minister to interfere in police work. But he had no such misgivings about asking for details of what CSIS was up to.

Mr. Kelleher, who served on a special Senate committee on terrorism two years ago, said in a recent interview from his law office in Toronto that the panel questioned senior RCMP and CSIS officials about co-operation between the agencies and he came away with the distinct impression that they are still not on very good terms.

But in the early days of the Air-India case, perhaps the incident that most crippled CSIS's probe was the near revolt by agents against their spymasters in Vancouver, an intelligence source said.

Angered by disciplinary action taken against their colleagues, CSIS agents assigned to the Air-India probe threatened to walk off the job unless simmering tensions between management and the analysts were resolved.

Relations were so strained that at a meeting held to discuss the progress agents were making, tempers flared and a brawl was prevented only when peacemakers intervened to calm agents down, said a counterintelligence source who attended some of the acrimonious meetings. "We were prepared for a wild-cat strike, to just walk off the job."

Another source who attended the meetings said "arguments broke out all the time" between agents but the anger and frustration fell short of a mutiny. Cooler heads eventually prevailed among the agents and the strike action was called off, a source said.

The Air-India bombing

June 23, 1985 - Air-India Flight 182 from Montreal to New Delhi via London blows up off the coast of Ireland, killing 329 people - mostly Canadians.

Nov. 8, 1985 - Two Sikhs in Duncan, B.C., fact explosives charges. Charges against one dropped for lack of evidence and the second fined for minor charge, unrelated to Air-India.

Jan. 22, 1986 - Canadian Aviation Board says a bomb brought down Air-India jet.

Feb. 4, 1986 - India concludes that a bomb brought down the plane.

Aug. 21, 1989 - Canadian investigators confirm they have found new evidence, but refuse to make it public.

Jan. 30, 1990 - Citizens Alliance for a Public Inquiry Into the Air-India disaster claims the RCMP blocking its bid for public inquiry.

May 10, 1991 - Inderjit Singh Reyat convicted in Vancouver of manslaughter and four explosives charges related to Narita Airport bomb blast in Japan that happened the same day as the Air-India disaster.

May 14, 1991 - MP John Nunziata says RCMP know who bombed the Air-India flight but don't have evidence needed for prosecution.

Oct. 15, 1992 - Key Air-India bombing suspect, Talwinder Singh Parmar, slain in a gun battle with Indian police.

Feb. 3, 1994 - Solicitor-General Herb Gray says royal commission into air disaster hasn't been ruled out, but declines to order one.

April 13, 1994 - RCMP says it has spent $20-million on Air-India probe, and is still working on the case.

May 31, 1995 - RCMP announces $1-million reward for help catching Air-India bombers.

Dec. 11, 1996 - RCMP announces that it expects to lay charges against several suspects in the bombing within a few months. No charges laid.

April 14, 1997 - RCMP announces it is pushing back completion date of Air-India probe until early fall.

Oct. 15, 1998 - RCMP announces it has handed its Air-India report to British Columbia's Crown Counsel office, which may allow it to bring charges in bombing.

March 11, 1999 - RCMP announces it has spent $26-million on the Air-India probe.

June 26, 1999 - Sikh temples across Canada hold memorial services to commemorate 14th anniversary of the Air-India bombing.

Jan. 26, 2000 - Sources detail destruction of tapes in Air-India probe.

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