U.S. spy agencies provided information to Ottawa after the killing of a Sikh separatist leader, but Canada developed the most definitive information that led the country to accuse India of orchestrating the plot, Western allied officials said.
In the aftermath of the assassination, U.S. intelligence agencies provided their Canadian counterparts with context that helped Canada conclude that India was involved. But what appears to be the ‘smoking gun’, the intercepted communications of Indian diplomats in Canada showing their involvement in the plot, was collected by Canadian officials, allied officials said.
While Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has called on India to cooperate with the Canadian investigation, U.S. officials have largely tried to avoid a diplomatic backlash from India. But the revelation of US intelligence involvement threatens to entangle Washington in the diplomatic battle between Canada and India, at a time when the country is keen to develop New Delhi as a closer partner.
The United States only learned of the plot, or evidence pointing to India’s involvement in it, only after agents killed Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, allied officials said.
Two men fatally shot Mr. Nijjar, a Canadian citizen who had advocated independence for a Sikh-majority region of India, in the Vancouver area on June 18.
Before the killing, Canadian officials had told Mr. Nijjar he was in danger. Several friends and acquaintances of Mr. Nijjar said he had been repeatedly warned of threats against him and had been warned to avoid the temple.
After his death, US officials told their Canadian counterparts that Washington had had no prior information about the plot, and that if they had, they would have immediately notified Ottawa under the ‘duty to warn’ intelligence doctrine, two allied officials said.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss what has become a diplomatic firestorm, said Canadian officials had given Mr. Nijjar a general warning but did not tell him he was the target of an Indian government plot.
The United States routinely and automatically shares vast amounts of intercepted communications with its closest intelligence partners, including Canada. But the contextual information about the murder was deliberately shared as part of a package of different intelligence streams.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment. U.S. officials have been reluctant to discuss the killing because while Washington wants to help Canada, a close ally, it does not want to alienate India, a partner with which it hopes to expand ties to counter China’s rising influence in Asia.
The accusation has led to a diplomatic rift between Ottawa and New Delhi, prompting each to expel the other’s intelligence officers and India to suspend visas for Canadians.
Nevertheless, the killing and the alleged involvement of the Indian government have shocked officials in Washington. While democratic countries carry out targeted assassinations in unstable countries or regions and the spy services of more authoritarian governments – namely Russia – orchestrate assassinations wherever they please, it is extremely rare for a democratic country to undertake lethal covert action in another democracy.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canadian officials have refused to release details of the intelligence Canada has collected on India. Canadian officials say it is important not to jeopardize the Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation into the killing.
Allied officials declined to detail the intelligence shared by the United States.
A Canadian government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information, said the government had received intelligence from multiple countries.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation earlier reported that the Canadian government had collected communications from Indian diplomats in Canada.