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If not for Daniel Jean’s blunder, Atwal affair could have been over in days

Daniel Jean, national security adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is questioned by journalists as he prepares to testify before the House of Commons in Ottawa on April 16, 2018.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

As media-briefers go, Daniel Jean may be the world’s most incompetent. At least, judging by what the Prime Minister’s national security adviser told a Commons committee on Monday.

Mr. Jean told the committee that when he briefed reporters in February on Justin Trudeau’s gaffe-filled trip to India, he was not alleging a conspiracy. He only wanted to refute incorrect reports that claimed security agencies knew in advance that failed assassin Jaspal Atwal was on the guest list for two of Mr. Trudeau’s receptions and did nothing.

But headlines after his briefing were about something else. Several of the journalists Mr. Jean briefed wrote stories in which a senior official suggested Mr. Atwal got into India because of efforts by people, perhaps rogue factions in the Indian government, who were intent on embarrassing the Canadian government.

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On Monday, Mr. Jean testified that the briefing was not aimed at protecting the Prime Minister, but defending the reputation of Canada’s security institutions.

But if it was just an effort to correct the record, it spread a gob of confusion. His damage control left a crater. Yet, in his testimony, Mr. Jean did not seem to know what went wrong.

Mr. Jean insisted he never told reporters there was a conspiracy in the Atwal affair. Instead, he said, there was a co-ordinated misinformation campaign, possibly carried out by rogue elements of the Indian government – which, check your dictionary, is a conspiracy. The reporters he spoke to wrote about an entirely different conspiracy, anyway, so it seems the national adviser got on the phone to talk about plots in ways that a selection of journalists from major news outlets can’t follow. That’s a problem, too.

Let’s go back to the basics of this tale. Jaspal Atwal, a former Sikh nationalist who was convicted of trying to kill an Indian cabinet minister on a visit to Canada in 1986, was invited to two of Mr. Trudeau’s receptions in India, and showed up at one. Mr. Trudeau said it was a mistake, and Liberal MP Randeep Sarai took the blame for inviting Mr. Atwal.

Naturally there were questions. Why wasn’t the guest list vetted? It was embarrassing.

Then Mr. Jean briefed journalists, including those travelling with Mr. Trudeau and a few others. (This writer was not one of them.) The reports that followed sparked controversy because they cited a Canadian official suggesting the scandal might have been orchestrated in India.

Mr. Jean testified that he briefed journalists because he had seen reports that suggested key government agencies – CSIS, the RCMP, and the High Commission to India – knew about Mr. Atwal’s invitation, and his past, but did nothing. He said it “appeared” to be a co-ordinated misinformation campaign and he just wanted to counter it.

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Setting the record straight is good. Mr. Jean was right to tell reporters the government was not tipped in advance about Mr. Atwal, that the PMO didn’t interfere so he could attend, and that the Canadian government did not help Mr. Atwal get into India.

It’s when he started speculating about who might be out to discredit Canada that he veered off course, particularly because, as he admitted, he didn’t know. His testimony suggests there might not be any evidence of a co-ordinated campaign – he’d seen stories that blamed three Canadian institutions, so it looked that way. It was very unwise to suggest it was a coordinated campaign that could be the work of rogue elements of the Indian government – even if he said it might not be.

The reporters he briefed didn’t write about a misinformation campaign, anyway. Several cited a Canadian official suggesting factions in India orchestrated Atwal’s presence in India. The Canadian Press did, and the CBC. The National Post’s John Ivison wrote a piece asking why India removed Mr. Atwal from a travel blacklist, quoting an official saying, “This was not an accident,” and that the Indian intelligence service might want to embarrass the Canadian government.

That’s a big difference. If it was a misunderstanding, Mr. Trudeau should have put this straight weeks ago. The PM should have also made it clear there was no conspiracy to get Mr. Atwal to his reception. And the Atwal affair could have been over in a few days.

National security adviser Daniel Jean says he tried to dispel misinformation over Jaspal Atwal's presence at an event with the Prime Minister. The Tories are calling on Justin Trudeau to withdraw statements he made about the controversy. The Canadian Press
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