Defense Ministry is unstable Ruwan tells Parliamentary probe
State Minister for Defense Ruwan Wijewardene says that the Intelligence Services did not convey prior warnings of Easter Sunday attacks to him.
Testifying before the Parliamentary Select Committee probing the Easter Sunday attacks Wijewardene said he should have been among those who had been given the warnings of the imminent attack.
Wijewardene also said there is a serious issue of coordination in the Defense Ministry and that the Ministry is not stable as there have been 5 Ministry Secretaries in the past five years.
He told the committee that this lapse was because of the October Constitutional Coup where there was a lot of mistrust between President Maithripala Sirisena and the government.
“After that crisis I was not even invited for the National Security Council meetings,” the Minister said.
Today’s committee comprised Dr Nalinda Jayatissa, Prof Ashu Marasinghe, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, M A Sumanthiran, Minister Ravi Karunanayake, Chairman Ananda Kumarasiri, Dr Jayampathi Wickremaratne and Minister Rauff Hakeem.
Minister Wijewardene: National Security Council in 2017 discussed of the Muslim extremism in Kaththankudy. The issue that had been discussed was there were rival Islamic groups and some mosques had been attacked. There was no issue of terrorist activities. Not till the Easter Sunday attack that the issue of Islamic terrorism and their operations discussed when I was there. We did not get the warning and the NSC did not discuss it. Only after the attack the issue that the issue was discussed at the NSC level. We met soon after the attack and took actions to mitigate it.
Chairman Kumarasiri: Did the State Intelligence service inform anybody of that attack.
Minister Wijewardene: No specific matter had been discussed.
Minister Karunanayake: So did that warning not been taken at the NSC?
Minister Wijewardene: We discuss many issues. There were discussions of the incidents at Kaththankudy and the issue of Lankans going to Syria to join the ISIS and obtaining their training
MA Sumanthiran: Did you chair the NSC meetings?
Minister Wijewardene: I sat as the head, but the meeting is conducted by the Secretary of Defence. He forwards the agenda for the meeting.
MA Sumanthiran: What was the role of the intelligence heads at the meeting? Isn’t it the purpose of the meeting to share intelligence gathered by various bodies in the NSC?
Minister Wijewardene: I think so. We discuss several matters but there was no discussion of formation of a terrorist group or any readiness by such a group to launch an attack.
MA Sumanthiran: There were incidents in Digana in 20018 March. Was there any issue being discussed of the radicalization of Islamic groups?
Minister Wijewardene: We discussed about the factions.
MA Sumanthiran: What was the last NSC Meeting you attended before Oct 2018?
Minister Wijewardene: I attended the NSC meetings before the constitutional crisis. I did not attend the NSC meetings during the crisis time. I was not invited for NSC meetings thereafter. The last time I attended was Oct 7, 2018. Thereafter I attended the meetings of national intelligence only in April 2019.
MA Sumanthiran: Did you ask as why you have not been invited
Minister Wijewardene: I asked the Secretary defense. He told me that there was no NSC meetings per se. The President met only the persons heading various security establishments as per his needs.
MA Sumanthiran: Apart from the secretary Defense, did you ask your minister, who is also the President?
Minister Wijewardene: No I did not. I believed that situation arose after the crisis there were some disagreements between the President and the government. I assumed that I was not invited as a part of those disagreements.
MA Sumanthiran: How about Intelligence review meetings? Did you ask about that?
Minister Wijewardene: I asked the Defense Secy. He told me that I would be called for the meetings after mid- March
MA Sumanthiran: did you know that such meetings took place?
MW: The usual procedure was to the Defense Secy to contact my secretary and inform of such meetings. There was no such informing
MA Sumanthiran: Usually where such meetings are taking place?
Minister Wijewardene: At the Ministry of Defence
MA Sumanthiran: Your office is at the same ministry. When such meetings take place in the same ministry did not you ask as to why you were not present or you had been overlooked?
Minister Wijewardene: I was not invited or I was not asked to come to those meetings.
Minister Karunanayake: do you think that there is a serious lapse of coordination
Minister Wijewardene: Absolutely, there is a serious lapse of coordination. The stability within the ministry of defence too is questionable. There had been five secretaries since 2015.
Field Marshal Fonseka: Was there any other responsibility apart from the duties assigned to you by the gazette?
Minister Wijewardene: No, I attended the meetings I was asked. I visited foreign countries when I was told. I attended the functions of the forces as the chief guest.
Field Marshal Fonseka: Ceremonial functions?
Minister Wijewardene: Yes
Field Marshal Fonseka: They were not operational?
Minister Wijewardene: No. I did not have decision making powers in operational matters.
Field Marshal Fonseka: But in parliament when there is a question you are supposed to give answer. You are placed in a difficult position when you are asked questions in parliament
Minister Wijewardene: Yes there were occasions where I was inconvenienced.
Field Marshal Fonseka: Did you have any experience in defence related matters before you are given that position?
Minister Wijewardene: No. I did not have defence experience. Now I have some knowledge since I was in the ministry for the past four years. We wanted you to become the Minister of law and order. We had hopes. But that did not work out
Field Marshal Fonseka: I was recently invited to take over deputy minister of defence and a cabinet portfolio. The invitation was sent to me by the Minister of defence. But I did not take it because I was expected to take it and keep my mouth shut. But considering the situation now prevailing in the country one cannot take the position and keep mouth shut. Wasn’t there at any time Zahran’s name came up or was there any attempt by Intelligence to look into the matter to curb the menace
Minister Wijewardene: The police had been instructed to continue investigations
Field Marshal Fonseka: There had been instructions to continue investigations. Investigations had been continuing till the bombs went off. Did anyone issue instructions to suppress the operations of the Zahran’s group, they continued trainings and maintained camps?
Minister Wijewardene: No such instructions were issued
Field Marshal Fonseka: Don’t you think that if the action had been taken early this disaster could have been prevented?
Minister Wijewardene: Yes. Certainly it could have been prevented. There were several such occasions as far as I know. For example if the Kaththankudy police had done their job proper when there were clashes among the two rival Islamic groups on that day, this disaster could have been prevented.
Dr Jayatissa: You have been given four institutions the Ranaviru Seva Authority, Defence Services Command and Staff College, Defence College and the National Cadet Corps.
Minister Wijewardene: Yes, later on some others including the Civil Defence Force were placed under my purview.
Dr Jayatissa: So the institutions coming under were not serious enough to be taken for discussion at NSC
Minister Wijewardene: No
Dr Jayatissa: What is the responsibility and role of yours in attending the intelligence review meetings on Tuesday?
Minister Wijewardene: I am asked only to give support to ensure national security. It is summoned by the Defence Secretary. He prepares the agenda with the Chief of National Intelligence.
Dr Jayatissa: On April 9 Director State Inteligence Service had sent a letter to CNI and Defence Secuy warning of the attack and where the attack would take place and who would carry out the attack. Did you see it?
Minister Wijewardene: I saw it after the attacks
Dr Jayatissa: So the State Defence Minister saw the letter only after the attack, is it so?
Minister Jayewardene: Yes
Dr Jayatissa: You have been provided Ministerial Security Division. They got the letter. Among those who got the letter was the Personal Security Officer assigned to you by the MSD. Did not the PSC of yours give that letter to you?
Minister Wijewardene: No, after the attack I summoned my PSC and asked him. He told me that his duty was to protect me not to forward the letters he receives. He said he receives similar letters occasionally but they only took action necessary but not pass those letters or their content to me.
Dr Jayatissa: What is the nature of relationship between State Minister of Defence and the Director SIS?
Minister Wijewardene: We are in contact. I think he informs us all important information. He decides what he informs me. He calls me and gives information that he deemed that I should know.
Dr Jayatissa: The SIS Director had the information but he did not pass it to you, isn’t it so?
Minister Wijewardene: No, I was not given that information.
Dr Jayatissa: What do you think of that now?
Minister Wijewardene: I am saddened by the fact that I was not informed of the attack beforehand and not sharing that information with me. Only after the attack the Driector SIS told me that he knew of the imminent attack.
Dr Jayatissa: There was information of radical groups operating in the East, and of their terrorist activities. There was information to the effect that such groups were forming themselves and organizing themselves. Haven’t those threats been discussed at the NSC?
Minister Wijewardene: We discussed it but there was no talk of Islamic fundamentalism developing into terrorism.
Dr Jayatissa: Soon after the attack there had been an NSC meeting. At that meeting it had been stated that only six out of eight bombs had went off and there were two more to go. There had been also a talk at that meeting that the ministers should protect themselves till the remaining bombs exploded.
Minister Wijewardene: Director SIS said so. But there was no talking of ministers should increase their protection. But it was mentioned that couple of more bombs are to go off.
Prof Marasinghe: Now it is clear that you had not been informed of the prior warning till the attack took place. Whom do you think is responsible to provide that information to you?
Minister Wijewardene: Secretary Defence should have done that.
Prof Marasinghe: Who did inform you of the attack first?
Minister Wijewardene: The Prime Minister informed me. Then I contacted the Secretary Defence who confirmed it. The Secretary told me that there would be an NSC meeting and asked me to attend it. I did so.