It was bizarre almost beyond belief. Though he now admits he had received advance intelligence that an Air India plane would be attacked by Sikh extremists on a weekend in June of 1985, he failed to tell his superiors. Nor did he apparently even do what almost every bureaucrat is programmed to do —write a memo confirming his fears and send it to other concerned officials. But when the RCMP brushed off his warnings, he did nothing more and went home. The plane was blown up off the coast of Ireland a few days after the intelligence warning on June 22, 1985. It was the largest mass murder of Canadians in peactime, killing 329 souls –82 were children.
If that’s not enough, the actions of this senior intelligence officer for Canada’s department of external affairs get even stranger. He didn’t bother to follow up about the warning after the plane was downed, even though all of official Ottawa was in crisis mode in the days following the bombing. And over the ensuing 22 years, James Bartleman admits that he did not say a word about the warning in all the time he held a variety of increasingly high-level positions. In his four-volume autobiography –that’s right, four volumes (many more historically noteworthy figures have a problem producing just one volume on their lives; Thomas Jefferson didn’t write any), he talks in great detail about his boyhood and professional life —excluding, however, that one all-important fact that he revealed earlier this week.
Mr. Bartleman has enjoyed just about every public honour the country has to offer. He has held postings representing Canada abroad as its ambassador and currently occupies one of the most important ceremonial offices in the country as Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. Yet, during all this time, he thought it right to remain silent about a key piece of the evidentiary puzzle so long missing until this week when, accompanied by his lawyer, he showed up at a public inquiry into the bombing. His failure to come forward at an earlier time, he explains, resulted from being out of the country for many years. He was not, we presume, in a cave without telephones and faxes. There were many return trips to Canada during this period, as there are for any ambassador. It’s a story that is hard to accept and victims’ families are not buying it. Many understandably regard Mr. Bartleman’s decision to drop the ball and not pick it up again for more than two decades as another in a long list of official betrayals. Many will wonder, as we do here, how such an individual can be permitted to retain his vice-regal post, given the trust and esteem the role enjoys. Some may also ponder what kind of signal this conduct sends to current civil servants who might also be tempted to follow the path of least resistance.
The public rightfully expects that those it entrusts to protect it will always go the extra mile in that task —not just walk away after doing the minimum. The kind of shocking misjudgments reflected in Mr. Bartleman’s behavior —the failure to follow up the initial warning to all centers of government authority that needed the information, the failure to alert superiors to an imminent terrorist act, and the failure to come forward to ensure the warning was on the record after the disaster occurred— would be career-ending moves for any mid-level civil servant and would most decidedly not be the basis for promotion and high honors, which is why James Bartleman’s astonishing and still not credibly explained actions are our choice for the Outrage of the Week.