Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser said it was his idea to brief reporters about a controversy that took place during the Prime Minister’s trip to India in an effort to counter what he called a co-ordinated misinformation campaign against three Canadian public institutions.
Daniel Jean told a Parliamentary committee on Monday that he worked with the Prime Minister’s Office to organize the background briefing with select reporters after Jaspal Atwal, a B.C. Sikh convicted of trying to kill an Indian cabinet minister in 1986, attended official events in India.
Liberal MP Randeep Sarai initially took responsibility for inviting Mr. Atwal. But Mr. Jean suggested in a background briefing that factions in India concerned about the threat of Sikh extremism might have orchestrated the presence of Mr. Atwal.
The two different accounts led Conservative MPs to press the government to explain who was responsible for Mr. Atwal’s presence during the Prime Minister’s trip, which was heavily criticized for everything from his elaborate outfits to the lack of substantial announcements.
Mr. Jean said he offered the briefing to counter false information that was circulating that CSIS, the RCMP and the Canadian High Commission in Delhi − “three respected institutions” − were aware of Mr. Atwal’s presence in advance, and that the PMO did not stop it.
Mr. Jean said security agencies acted to have the invitation withdrawn as soon as they were notified that Mr. Atwal had attended an event during the trip.
“I never raised a conspiracy theory,” Mr. Jean told the House of Commons’ public safety and national security committee.
“What I said is that there was co-ordinated efforts to try to misinform, and I said that these were either private people – it was definitely not the government of India – and if it was people from India, they were acting in a rogue way.”
Yet, later in his testimony he said: “What I (told) the media in the background briefing is that there was what seemed to be orchestrated misinformation ... and I went out of my way to say, very clearly, this is not the government of India.
“They said well who [is it]? I said well it’s either private citizens, or it’s people that are from the government doing it and are not blessed.”
After the meeting, Mr. Jean told reporters he did not know who was behind the co-ordinated efforts.
Mr. Jean told the committee the Indian government removed Mr. Atwal from a blacklist in 2017 and allowed him to travel to the country last summer. He said Mr. Atwal is no longer considered a security threat, but is a potential embarrassment for the Prime Minister.
The Conservatives accused Mr. Jean of backing away from his original “conspiracy theory” during Monday’s testimony.
“The Prime Minister clearly has to say this was a failure of the Liberal caucus and of his office to properly vet the list for this trip and he should apologize for that, and apologize to the Indian government,” Tory foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole said.
The Conservatives and NDP agreed it was inappropriate for Mr. Jean to brief reporters and that he caused more confusion by attempting to dispel so-called misinformation.
“Why someone who occupies an extremely important position such as that is basically engaging in communication exercises is a question that I have,” NDP public safety critic Matthew Dubé said.
Last month, the Conservatives forced more than 20 hours of non-stop voting in the House to press the government to call Mr. Jean to testify. The Liberals offered a classified briefing to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. Mr. Jean then agreed to testify before MPs also.
“There is a narrative after the trip that developed that somehow I was either being used as a human shield, or somehow I had crossed my public service values to go and do this,” Mr. Jean said.
“Canadians have the right to know when there are people trying to create a false narrative using three respected public institutions.”
Mr. Jean called Mr. Atwal’s presence a “faux pas” and agreed with Mr. O’Toole that the Liberals were responsible for issuing the invitation.
“If a Liberal MP had refused to invite Jaspal Atwal to the Prime Minister’s events in India, there would be no scandal, is that fair to say?” Mr. O’Toole asked.
“You’re correct, sir,” Mr. Jean said.
The new national security committee of parliamentarians is also conducting a special review of the affair. The committee, comprised of MPs and senators with the highest level of security clearance, will study allegations relating to the India trip, including claims of foreign interference, security risks and inappropriate use of intelligence.