President told me not to attend NSC meeting convened by PM - Hemasiri Fernando

7 June 2019 12:10 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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  • Mr. Fernando said that he used to inform the President on intelligence reports after he assumed duties as Defence Secretary
  • 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.
  • 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

 

By Ajith Siriwardana and Yohan Perera  

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 Director 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 was the Security Council convened after you assumed duties as defence 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?   
HF: No. 
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...
HF: Correct.
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
HF: Yes
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. 

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?   
HF: No. 
JW: Why was he 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, 2018?   
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...
HF: Correct.
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
HF: Yes
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 was this matter taken up 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 to us how you conveyed 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 an 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.
SF: Did you inform the President on those two occasions about the Thawheed Jamaath?
HF: I must explain this as well to you. We had only discussed about the NTJ four or five times. 
Nalinda Jayatissa: Do you assume that the reports sent by SIS, were sent to the President too through its Director?
HF: Not the reports honorable member, the important contents mentioned therein. 
Rajitha: The letter which was sent by Sisira Mendis clearly states that the Indian High Commission and several Catholic churches would be attacked... 
HF: But Chairman, it carried information about an alleged attack. When it says so, it is not a 100% confirmed report. I sent it to the CNI . After the meeting on the 9th, I asked him to send it to the IGP. 
SF: You spoke about four letters. Was any of those discussed in the NSC?
HF: Usually we do not keep NSC notes. As far as I can remember it was not. The matter pertaining to Makandure Madush was discussed at length. 
Nalinda Jayatissa: The IGP in his testament said after an incident on April 16 at Kattankudy, he had received that information on April 18, 19 and 20. Did you also receive those reports?
HF: No, I got to know after the IGP filed those reports in his FR petition. We did not know. But we expected that intelligence services would provide us with those information after the investigations. But we did not get them. 
Ashu Marasinghe: Does the SIS function under you?
HF: Though it functions under me as per the gazette, its operations are not governed by me. A Defence Secretary like me has no powers at all to change the system. When you talk about a Defence Secretary, there is a big difference between me and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. He was the unofficial Defence Minister. I am a helpless Secretary who was unable to speak to Defence Minister at least once a week.
Rauff Hakeem: After the Mawanella incident where Buddhist statues were demolished, there was a need to investigate those incidents properly. The CID had launched a broader investigation. 
Nalinda Jayatissa: After a serious attack. Did you attempt to inform the President on that? 
HF: On the Easter Sunday morning where the attack took place, the SIS Director contacted and asked me that how many Methodist churches were there in Colombo? I asked why, then he said there was an information that it was not the Catholic churches that are attacked but the Methodist churches. Then I contacted one of my friends and conveyed to him the correct information. 
M.A. Sumanthiran: At what time did he ask you?
HF: I cannot remember exactly. May be around 8.00 a.m. I gathered information from my friends and passed it to the SIS Director. 15 minutes later, I received the news that there were blasts in some churches.
M.A. Sumanthiran: You also spoke to the IGP on the previous evening saying that something might happen the next day. How did you get to know?
HF: I was sleeping, because I had a very bad headache. I got a call at about 5.00 am and the SIS Director told me that he had sent a Whatsapp message and to read it. I read it and it was about a possible attack. I read the message and asked what would be next. He said that he had already spoken to the IGP and passed all all the necessary information and told me to talk to the IGP. I spoke to him and got it confirmed that he was aware and making the necessary precautions. Then I told him to get back to me if there was anything. Then I tried to contact the SIS Director and found his phone was busy. Then I sent him a message to inform that I had spoken to the IGP and confirmed.
M.A. Sumanthiran: This is a very serious information. The President was not in the country. Did you think that you had to inform the President at that point?
HF: I thought the President would have already been informed by the SIS chief. 
M.A. Sumanthiran: That was a practice which you assumed that the President had been informed by the SIS chief. But from the 9th, the document about the attack was available... 
M.A. Sumanthiran: Did the President tell you to resign?
HF: The IGP told me on April 23 that the President had asked him to meet him at 8.00 am and that he went. 
The President had asked him to take the responsibility for the incident and to resign. He said he would not resign. After he received the news, he did his best whatever he could do. He asked why should he resign and asked me what I would have said if asked to. The following day I spoke to the President and said I wanted to talk to him for about 15 minutes. Then I thought if the head of the police department under me was removed for holding responsible for the carnage, I must not betray him as the ministry secretary. I must say the President did not ask me to resign. But the media said that the President had asked both of us to resign. It is a complete lie. He did not tell me so. But I went and met him and said I wanted to talk to him. I asked whether he had asked the IGP to resign and if so, what was the reason. The President said that the IGP did not want to take the responsibility but had to. Then I said in that circumstance, I would tender my resignation as this tragedy occurred due to failure by the police. So I must also resign as ministry secretary and the President was so happy about my decision.

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