Oct. 17, 2004. 01:00 AM
Miro Cernetig 
Graham Fraser 
Richard Gwyn 
Stephen Handelman 
Chantal Hebert 
James Travers 
Ian Urquhart 
Thomas Walkom 
Experts push for security review
Canada needs to heed lessons learned in aftermath of 9/11

Conference delegates call for debate on intelligence issues


OTTAWA—The theme of the conference that brought together Canadian and international security experts was: "Peace, Order and Public Safety: Are we getting it right?"

The simple answer that emerged yesterday after three days of discussions on security, intelligence gathering and defence programs is that without greater oversight and public discussion, there's no way of knowing.

The federal government and the public should be engaged in the very debates conducted at the conference concerning methods of intelligence gathering and Canada's role in international operations, those in attendance argued.

"It's time for a proper national security review," said University of Toronto professor and intelligence specialist Wesley Wark.

"Canada is the most closed society in the West when it comes to these matters."

An auditor-general's report released in March noted Canada did not take advantage of the lessons learned after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States. The report said any efforts to make changes were hampered by bureaucratic red tape, turf wars between agencies and "fundamental gaps" in routine security. A blistering Senate committee report followed.

Some security experts point even further back, to the case of Montreal resident Ahmed Ressam, the so-called "millennium bomber," convicted in the United States of plotting to attack the Los Angeles airport. His plan was foiled by the actions of an astute U.S. border guard who pulled over Ressam's car as he attempted to cross into the U.S. in December, 1999. But with the exception of a classified report conducted by the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the oversight agency of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, there was little fallout from the near disaster.

A federal inquiry is now underway examining the role Canadian officials played in the deportation and detention of Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar. The inquiry will probe various intelligence operations established after 9/11, but the scope is limited to only the details of his case.

Arar returned to Canada last fall after spending a year without charges in a Syrian jail after being deported there by U.S. officials who arrested him during a flight stopover in New York.

The federal government recently presented a new national security policy, which will bring together six existing federal departments including CSIS and the Canada Border Service Agency as a response to the country's security needs. An advisory council on national security issues will also be established to oversee the new integrated approach.

But aside from establishing an integrated intelligence threat centre at CSIS headquarters, which many security experts say was long overdue, there are still few details in the policy on what changes will occur and how they'll be implemented.

The main concern among security experts is whether the $8.3 billion allotted to public security since 9/11 is being properly allocated.

The conference, hosted by the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies, began Thursday with a warning that Canada must not become complacent about terrorism.

Robert Wright, the national security adviser to Prime Minister Paul Martin, repeated the warning issued in a tape-recording two years ago by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden that Canada sits fifth on a list of countries targeted for attack.

Stuart Farson, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University, added in a session yesterday, that Canadians rate earthquakes and organized crime above concerns of terrorism.

Among the questions asked at the conference was how to properly gather and analyze intelligence, the sheer volume of which threatens to overwhelm security agencies. More than one presenter asked if intelligence failures were on the part of the gatherers themselves or on the part of those who acted upon the information.

Communications Security Establishment chief Keith Coulter also warned against cyber-terrorism and hoped the creation of a new national task force would help Canada protect critical infrastructure responsible for the operation of hospitals, businesses and transportation.

CSE, a branch of the defence department, is responsible for protecting electronic information and gathering foreign communications. Anti-terror legislation gave CSE the power to monitor Canadian communications that originate from a foreign source but all other Canadian content falls to CSIS.

It's a process tied in "legal knots," at a time when information travels at such a speed and with difficulty determining its source, says Wark, that the way it's handled in Canada also needs further examination.

Canada should continue as well to look abroad, said Canadian Maj.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, former deputy commander of the International Assistance and Stabilization Force in Afghanistan.

The recent election in Afghanistan was due in part to the work of Canadian soldiers and the country should plan to stay there for at least another decade, he said.

Providing support to the country not only helps promote a peaceful society but also discourages the cultivation of new terrorist groups, Leslie added.

It was an idea supported by University of Toronto's David Wright, Canada's former ambassador to NATO, who said the country should prepare to have as many as 5,000 troops deployed around the world at any time so never to be "caught off guard" by a call to action.

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