By Niresh Eliatamby –
“As usual, there was a story behind the story, and this is where the truth was hidden” – Kenneth Eade.
Our politicians, of all hues, have done a marvellous job. Really they have. Since the Easter Sunday carnage, more than five weeks ago, they have systematically and deliberately carried out a campaign to distract all Sri Lankans from the main issue.
The issue is, quite simply: Who knew about the impending suicide bombing attacks, and why did they not act to prevent them?
How have they done this? Quite simply, by diverting our attention from the main issue by creating other issues. These include rumour mongering about fictitious attacks on schools on 13th May and Vesak; whether or not women should be allowed to cover their faces; doctors allegedly carrying out illegal surgical procedures on thousands of women; arresting a woman for wearing a commonly seen pattern on her dress and claiming that it insulted a religion; terrorizing minorities by releasing a violent monk… In short, a superb effort.
However, on the eve of the scheduled presentation of the final report of the three-member Presidential Committee that was appointed to uncover who knew what and why no action was taken, it appears timely to take a look at what the public has been told so far through a variety of sources.
This article is not meant to prejudice in any way the incredible work that has been done by the Malalgoda Committee and its three learned members, who have toiled at their truly herculean task for more than a month, sifting through evidence, questioning witnesses, examining affidavits, and generally trying to uncover the truth. Indeed, it is quite possible that the Malalgoda Committee may have uncovered revelations that the general public has not been privy to up to now, and that the assumptions that the public has been led to believe have been completely incorrect.
But let’s look at what we do know. Indian and Sri Lankan media has published details of the warnings that have been passed by Indian intelligence to the Government of Sri Lanka. The GOSL institution to which foreign intelligence is usually passed is the State Intelligence Service (Foreign). We do know that the Ministry of Defence was aware, because Ministry officials have publicly admitted so.
The biggest question is of course: “Did the President know?” He has said that he did not. Considering that the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces; chairs the National Security Council; and is the Minister directly responsible for both Defence and Law & Order, it seems incredible that he was not told. Remember that his Ministry officials and senior police officials have admitted that they knew. Why then would the President not have been told?
Whether the President was told, but didn’t take it seriously, is quite immaterial. If he was told, he was told. If he was not told, then he was not told.
Then we come to the question of how much Sri Lanka’s numerous intelligence agencies knew. Since Indian intelligence had issued its first warning as far back as January 2019, and followed up with multiple warnings with extraordinary details, it is logical to assume that every single intelligence agency in Sri Lanka was aware of the threat. And Sri Lanka has many intelligence agencies – TID, CID, Organised Crime, State Intelligence Service (both Foreign and National), Military Intelligence, Naval Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence…
Chief among them is the SIS, headed by two DIGs, one for Foreign intelligence matters and one for Domestic matters. One of these DIGs is known to have a direct line to the President. How could these DIGs not have known? And if they did, why did they not tell the President? Or did they?
There have been wild allegations that the arrest of several intelligence officials on charges of murder, had seriously affected their capabilities to the point where they had become incompetent. This is laughable. Only a few personnel of two agencies – the Directorate of Military Intelligence and Naval Intelligence – were arrested at all.
Our intelligence agencies are not mom-and-pop-shops. They are the result of 30 years of experience in battling the LTTE, which was the most dangerous terrorist organisation in the world. The officers heading these intelligence agencies are not novices who stepped into the role yesterday. To pretend that they would fall apart because a few personnel were arrested is nonsensical. Their reach is across the island, not just the North and East and Colombo, but everywhere where there is a base of the army, navy or air force, or a police station. For example it is quite routine for the personnel of a navy base or air force base in the South to include several intelligence gathering personnel of those respective forces. These feed intelligence to Colombo.
In addition, our intelligence agencies also regularly share information with each other. Their senior officers are well known to each other for perhaps 20 years, and often meet socially as well as officially. They are on a first name basis, and can easily pick up the phone and talk to each other. For example, the Director of Military Intelligence would be of similar rank as his counterparts in the police, air force and navy – DIG’s, Major Generals, Commodores, Air Commodores… they would have generally joined the forces and police at about the same time, and been promoted up the ranks.
Surely the various intelligence agencies got to know of the Indian warning? Even if they were not officially told, surely they would have heard about it from their contacts in the Ministry of Defence? Or someone told them that there were memos flying around the Police Department about Indian intelligence warnings of impending attacks by suicide bombers? And if they did get to know, should they not have told the heads of their forces – the Army, Navy and Air Force? Why keep their own commanders in the dark?
Finally, the claim that our officials did not take the Indian warnings seriously is quite strange. Sri Lanka’s intelligence agencies have traditionally had an enormous amount of respect for Indian intelligence. In fact, India’s intelligence agencies played a significant part in the defeat of the LTTE, including the discovery and destruction of several LTTE arms ships. So when Indian intelligence issued multiple warnings over several months about suicide bombings of churches, and even provided extraordinary details of the plotters, it seems quite amazing that Sri Lanka’s intelligence agencies would not have acted.
It is also pertinent to ask whether the Prime Minister and the State Minister for Defence were aware of any part of the plot. Both have so far publicly pronounced that they were not told; and in fact that they had not been invited to the meetings of the National Security Council. Yet, surely the staff of the State Minister of Defence should have been aware that something was afoot from activity they should have noticed in the Defence Ministry?
And how much did the Opposition know? The much publicized warning memo that was sent out across a good portion of the police force, was also copied to the senior police officer in charge of the security of the Opposition Leader. But the Opposition Leader has said that he himself wasn’t told.
How much did individual Ministers in the Cabinet know? One of them has said that his father warned him not to go to church, and he therefore did not do so! So clearly, there was a lot of information moving around among fathers of Cabinet Ministers! Are we to accept then that the fathers and perhaps mothers of Cabinet Ministers are more competent at analyzing and acting on intelligence warnings than the experts in our entire intelligence community and political leadership?
Let us hope that the Malalgoda Committee will shed light on these mysteries, through the shroud of nonsensical clutter that our politicians have put up over the last several weeks.
*Niresh Eliatamby was for many years an investigative journalist, who also spent nearly two decades covering Sri Lanka’s civil war