Former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando said yesterday that he did not inform the President on the intelligence information on the imminent suicide attack on Easter Sunday because he assumed that the Firector of the State Intelligence Services (SIS) must have informed the President on the matter, as it has been the practice.
Giving evidence before the Parliament Select Committee (PSC) appointed to probe the Easter Sunday attack, Mr. Fernando said that he used to inform the President on intelligence reports after he assumed duties as Defence Secretary but he gave it up after the President said he was aware of those reports through another source. He also revealed that the President had instructed him not to attend the National Security Council (NSC) meeting convened by the Prime Minister soon after the deadly suicide attack.
Mr. Fernando went on to say that he was not aware of a National Security Committee, which was said to have been set up instead of the National Security Council, and added that he had only attended four NSC meetings during his tenure as Defence Secretary.
The Parliament Select Committee (PSC) was convened and chaired by its Secretary Jayampathy Wickremeratne.
Jayampathy Wickremeratne (JW): How many times the Security Council was convened after you assumed duties as defense secretary?
Hemasiri Fernando (HF): The NSC was convened four times: 13-11-2018, 3-12-2018, 4-1-2019 and 19-2-2019.
JW: It was reported quoting Presidential Secretariat that a National Security Committee was convened. Is it different from the NSC?
HF: The President, under his executive powers can convene meetings on various subjects through the Presidential Secretary. Various meetings were convened on different subjects during my tenure. But I say with responsibility that the meetings that convened were National Security Council meetings.
Rajitha Senaratne: Was a committee like National Security Council not convened?
HF: As far as I am aware, No sir.
JW: The NSC meeting was held on November 13, 2018. The Prime Minister and other responsible officials must have attended that meeting…
HF: No sir, the Prime Minister was not called for any of those meetings.
JW: Who was the Prime Minister when the NSC meeting was convened on November 13, 2018?
HF: It was Mahinda Rajapaksa.
JW: Was he called for the meeting?
JW: Why he was not called for the meeting?
HF: I don’t know the reason for that Sir. But it is the President who gives the order for NSC meeting to be called. I got only a short notice on four occasions to convene the meetings.
Sarath Fonseka (SF): Did the IGP attend the NSC meeting on November 11, 201?
HF: It was the first meeting that I attended after I assumed duties. I remember that he too had attended. An incident had occurred. There were plans to arrest the CDS and that matter was discussed at the NSC. Actually, I think the President told me not to invite the IGP for the NSC meeting hereafter, because based on a decision taken at the NSC, the IGP had transferred a police officer. That was the first reason for not calling the IGP for NSC meetings.
JW: Who was that police officer?
HF: Nishantha Silva.
M.A. Sumanthiran: According to you, the discussion with regards to Nishantha Silva’s transfer that happened on November 13.
HF: I think that’s the date. If you need the precise date, I need to check my documents.
Rajitha: Apart from the Prime Minister and the IGP, who else were not called for the meetings?
HF: State Minister of Defence was not called for.
JW: Who informs the members of the NSC to attend its meetings?
HF: Mr. Chairman, as I said earlier, the order is given by the President. The Defence Secretary informs the members who participate. I must say one thing. The agenda of the meeting has been set by the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI)
Sumanthiran: When you tell about the NSC meetings, what does the President say?
HF: He only advises me about the people who are not to be invited.
Sumanthiran: Which means he specifically told you not to invite the Prime Minister, IGP, State Minister of Defence etc…
Ashu Marasinghe: Apart from the NSC, was there a security committee?
HF: A weekly intelligence meeting convened every week. I chair that meeting. But, whenever I attend some other official work, I used to allow CNI to chair the meeting. But in such circumstances, we do not invite the heads of the three armed forces and CDS. Instead, we invite their second or third in command for the meeting.
Ashu Marasinghe: Was this convened every week?
HF: I can’t tell you exactly whether it convened every week. But most of the time the meetings took place on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.
Ashu Marasinghe: Can you remember attending the meeting on April 9
Ashu Marasinghe: Can you remember what was discussed on that day?
HF: I can explain it.
Nalinda Jayatissa: Tell us, when did you get the information on the April 21 terror attack?
HF: The information of a possible attack, that we, the ministry received on April 8. Director of SIS had sent a letter to the CNI dated April 7. But the CNI received it on 8, since 7th was a Sunday. On the 8th, My staff and I were very busy since morning with a programme related to the Indian Defence Secretary. On that day in the evening, I cannot remember the exact time, the CNI told me that he had received an information. Then I asked about what it was? He said there was an information on a possible attack. He said the report did not specify any date or time. Then I asked what the security clarification was. He said ‘top secret’. I asked him to take up the matter at the already planned intelligence meeting on the following day. So I can clearly remember that this meeting was on the 9th.
SF: But this matter was taken for discussion on the 9th?
HF: You know better than me. It is the SIS Director who briefs at the meeting first. Then, the military intelligence chief, Air Force and Navy intelligence would be asked to brief only if they have had any information. Then the IGP, who, most probably make a presentation. But at this meeting, the SIS Director did not mention even a word about the intelligence information in his presentation which was sent to the ministry on the previous day.
SF: Did you tell the CNI to raise the matter at the meeting on the following day?
HF: Yes, I asked him to take it.
SF: You also should have discussed this…
HF: No, let me explain to you, it was not. I did not want to disturb this meeting as it was on an agenda. Soon after the meeting, under special matters, I asked Sisira Mendis, who was seated next to me that a letter he was talking about which I asked him to take it today. Then I saw he (Sisira Mendis) was telling something to SIS Director who was seated on his left. Then he said to send this to the IGP immediately. Having said so, he looked at me and said that they were investigating this and would give more information on this. But I do not think this statement was paid any serious notice by the heads of the three armed forces or any other who did attend that meeting. Sir, I have a question, this letter which was issued by a foreign intelligence service and sent by our SIS Director. If it was so important, it should have been included in his report. I want to make an important statement at this point that the SIS Director sent me a weekly intelligence report.
This report covers all the matters pertaining to that particular week. I received the last report on April 8. It covered the week between March 31 and April 6. Then the newspapers reported and the President also made a statement that this foreign intelligence information was received on the 4th. We got to know this through the media. If that information had been received on the 4th, I was puzzled as to why it had not been included in the report that was sent to me. Then I thought there was some doubts over this information, as it had been conveyed by another intelligence service. We were not told about what intelligence service that was. We had the right to ask but we did not like to ask either. This information was not sent to us after being scrutinized. Usually, it would become intelligence information only after it has been scrutinized. It was not a valid intelligence information if a photocopy of it was sent to us. So there was no reason to give any special attention to it. Apart from that, the importance of this was not discussed at the meeting.
SF: Do you admit that priority was not given to this matter at the meeting on April 9?
HF: Yes, I do admit.
JW: Could you explain us that how did you convey this intelligence information to the minister? What mechanism was used to do so? Does the SIS Director directly inform the President?
HF: You asked me a good question. Two days after I assumed duties as Defence Secretary, and when I was discussing some matters with the President, I had a report sent by the SIS. At that time, I was not aware of the procedure. I told the President that I had a intelligence report. He asked me what it was? Then I read it to him and he said, Secretary, the SIS chief had told him about it. He explained it to me very kindly. After two days, I told him about the similar report, then again he told me that he had been informed of it by the SIS Director. Then, during the period of five and-a-half months, I did not talk to him about any intelligence report.