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Officials may have ignored 1985 bomb warning

Police may have ignored a last-minute warning before the 1985 attack on Air India Flight 182, history’s deadliest bombing of a civilian airliner, a respected Canadian diplomat told a government inquiry on Thursday.
/ Source: Reuters

Police may have ignored a last-minute warning before the 1985 attack on Air India Flight 182, history’s deadliest bombing of a civilian airliner, a respected Canadian diplomat told a government inquiry on Thursday.

James Bartleman, then senior intelligence analyst with the Department of External Affairs, said he realized the gravity of the information so he personally delivered the document to a senior Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, only to have the officer appear to “hiss at him” for his actions.

“His reaction startled me. He flushed and told me that of course he’d seen it, and that he didn’t need me to tell him how to do his job,” Bartleman told the inquiry in Ottawa.

The commission is examining if the attack that killed 329 people could have been prevented and how it was later investigated.

Bartleman, who has held several diplomatic posts and is now Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, said the warning was included in a daily foreign intelligence report he reviewed June 18, 1985, and said an Air India flight was targeted for an attack on the weekend of June 22 and 23, 1985.

Flight 182 was blown up June 23, 1985, off the Irish coast by a suitcase bomb while en route to India from Canada via London. It killed everyone aboard the Boeing 747 — most of them Canadians going to visit relatives in India.

The bombing was believed to have been organized by Sikh militants living in Canada who were waging a violent campaign for an independent Sikh homeland in India and wanted revenge for India’s 1984 storming of the Golden Temple.

There have long been accusations that bureaucratic disputes between the RCMP and other government departments hampered both the monitoring of Sikh militants before the bombings and the criminal investigation after.

Police did not place extra security on the flight, and luggage was allowed on the aircraft with minimal screening because of a problem with the X-ray equipment that weekend.

Information a year in advance
The Canadian government has long said it had no specific warning, but the inquiry heard this week police had information as early as 1984 that some sort of attack was being planned.

Bartleman said the RCMP may have viewed the report as a false alarm.

“It was raw, unevaluated information. There had been so many alarms raised over the previous year ... I suppose it would be possible for someone to say this was another of those ’cry wolf’ events,” he said.

Bartleman said he did nothing more with the information because he believed the RCMP was handling it properly. “The next thing in my memory was the downing of the aircraft,” he told the hearing.

An attorney representing the inquiry told Bartleman that investigators had found nobody else who remembers seeing that warning, and he was asked how he could remember the events so well after more than two decades.

“There are certain events in a person’s life that you never forget,” he said. “I can’t speak for the others, but I know what I saw and I know what happened in that period.”

Bartleman said he did not know that officials were unaware of his information until he contacted the inquiry with an offer to testify, and was not doing it to get anyone in trouble.

No criminal charges were not filed for the bombing until late 2000, and two of three men charged were acquitted. The third pleaded guilty to a reduced charge.

Little of the evidence presented to the inquiry this week was presented during the lengthy criminal trial in Vancouver.