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Former Supreme Court of Canada Justice John Major delivers a statement about his final report on the bombing of Air India Flight 182 in Ottawa June 17, 2010. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS/Chris Wattie)
Former Supreme Court of Canada Justice John Major delivers a statement about his final report on the bombing of Air India Flight 182 in Ottawa June 17, 2010. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

Police and spies need to work closely together, Air India judge says Add to ...

It is sure to be the enduring legacy of the act of terrorism that killed 329 people aboard Air India Flight 182: a call by the head of the disaster's inquiry for no less than a wholesale revamping of Canada's national-security apparatus.

Former Supreme Court justice John Major outlined his bold vision to overhaul Canada's national-security system Thursday, including changing the roles of the RCMP, spies and prosecutors in the fight against terrorism, under the watchful eye of a new and empowered national security czar.

Mr. Major warned that some of the problems that existed 25 years ago when Flight 182 was bombed still exist today - and make us vulnerable to another terrorist attack.

"A cascading series of errors contributed to the failure of our police and security forces to prevent this tragedy," he said, in summarizing his 4,000 pages of findings. "The level of error, incompetence and inattention which took place before the flight was sadly mirrored in many ways for many years."

Not only did federal agents fail to bring terrorists to justice 25 years ago - they still fail today, Mr. Major concluded.

He also criticized the line that federal agents take in dismissing past bungling - "that was then, this is now."

"The commission rejects that position," he writes, adding that systemic failings have to be addressed before terrorists attack Canada again.

"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."

Mr. Major lays abundant blame at the feet of the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service for botching the probe into the 1985 Air India bombings. He argued that problems and turf wars are systemic in the security agencies, and greatly hamper terrorism investigations today.

"This was the largest mass murder in Canadian history," Mr. Major said, adding the problems he is trying to address remain urgent matters of life and death.

Calling the findings a "damning indictment," Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to respond "positively." A trio of his government ministers said Thursday they will take a serious look at the advice, but they would not commit to specific changes.

With or without the government's political will, it will be a difficult road for Mr. Major's vision to become reality. Mounties, mandarins and defence lawyers armed with Charter challenges will likely take aim at batting back his most radical ideas.

His provocative findings are already rankling security services. Members of Canada's security intelligentsia are already privately bristling about "mandate creep" being imposed upon them. They suggest Mr. Major is conflating 1984 snafus with present-day realities where spies and police can and do convict terrorists.

Some of the inquiry findings run against recent rulings that have urged greater separation between CSIS and the RCMP - not closer partnerships. "The courts are going to scream bloody murder," one former federal official said. "There are different lanes in the roadway. We can run things in parallel."

Margaret Bloodworth, a former national-security adviser at the Privy Council Office, said in testimony during Mr. Major's hearings that in a parliamentary system, a security czar should be a conciliator, not a boss.

Mr. Major made it clear he disagrees. He said the essential problem with Canada's national-security systems is that "no one is in charge."

Only a vastly empowered national security adviser could force police and spies to work together, he said.

CSIS - a clandestine agency - is too introverted, his findings suggest, and too eager to jealously hold onto potential life-saving information.

Mr. Major says CSIS is beholden to an antiquated "we-don't-collect-evidence" mentality. Faulting agents for erasing surveillance tapes of Air India's conspirators, he said the spy service should keep its surveillance records for 25 years at a stretch - and grow accustomed to sometimes producing the recordings in court.

And the problems work both ways: Mr. Major laments that the RCMP views CSIS like a high-minded CrimeStoppers tip line. Too many Mounties, he said, subscribe to a mindset that "the less information we receive from CSIS, the better."

In one glaring aside, Mr. Major suggested the RCMP might want to specialize on high-crime conspiracy cases, such as counterterrorism probes, and get out of local policing altogether. Given that two-thirds of the federal force's uniformed members essentially work as beat officers lent to provinces, that idea will surely be a non-starter.

Mr. Major doesn't just fault the agencies, however: He suggested that if CSIS and the RCMP have to give up a little turf to get more done, then courts and judges have to follow suit.

He urged his colleagues on the bench not to interpret the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as expansively as they have in the past. Individual accused, he suggested, should not necessarily get to see every Crown document just because they think it could be relevant to their case.

Judges, he cautioned, will also have to work better to protect legitimate state secrets if Canada is to prosecute terrorism.

"It would be a tragedy if turf wars scuppered any meaningful reform," said Anil Kapoor, who served as one of the commission's right-hand lawyers.

Any institutional intransigence on the part of federal agencies, he said, would only "recycle the original tragedy."

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