Mar. 31, 2004. 06:25 AM
 
Fraser sounds security alarm (Mar. 31) 
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Fraser report sounds security alarm
Auditor criticizes post-9/11 efforts
She finds flaws at border, airports

BRUCE CAMPION-SMITH AND ROBERT BENZIE
STAFF REPORTERS

OTTAWA—Canada has ignored the lessons from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by bungling efforts to keep terrorists out and allowing as many as 4,500 workers possibly linked to organized crime a free rein at airports, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser says.

In a devastating indictment of the government's $7.7 billion anti-terror initiatives, she concludes that efforts to safeguard Canadians have been hampered by red tape, turf wars among the country's intelligence agencies and "fundamental gaps" in routine security.

Fraser's disturbing report is filled with examples of terror alerts falling through the cracks, of security officials operating in the dark, and of policing agencies unwilling or unable to share critical information.

It follows on the heels of her blockbuster Feb. 10 report on the sponsorship scandal in which up to $100 million was funnelled through Liberal-friendly advertising firms in Quebec.

In yesterday's findings, she says terrorists and other criminals could use the 25,000 Canadian passports that go missing or are stolen each year.

Despite that, frontline border officials have never been told what passports are invalid due to the Passport Office's privacy concerns.

As well, she suggests the government rushed to spend billions of dollars on national security programs without any strategic plan or proper assessment of the threats facing the country.

"The government as a whole did not adequately assess intelligence lessons learned from critical incidents such as Sept. 11," Fraser writes.

She acknowledged Canada's handling of its national security was on par with other countries.

"However, the fact that we are doing no worse than others should not be grounds for complacency," Fraser told reporters yesterday. "These matters are serious and need to be addressed."

In one of her most troubling revelations, Fraser says that more than two years after hijackers crashed jetliners into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, people with criminal ties are still being granted sensitive security clearances that allow them full access to aircraft and luggage at Canadian airports.

"Criminal associations are a significant threat to air transport security," Fraser warns in her report. "Many individuals whose reliability is questionable have access to restricted areas."

Police and customs officials identified 247 individuals granted security clearances in Toronto and Montreal who had been involved in criminal conspiracies. As well, RCMP fingered 16 businesses operating at airports that had criminal ties, such as providing travel arrangements for organized crime, identity fraud and selling stolen passes.

"The firms were associated with biker gangs, organized crime and drug trafficking," the report said.

Citing security and privacy concerns, government officials declined to name the organized crime syndicates involved. But crime expert Lee Lamothe, author of the bestseller Bloodlines: The Rise and Fall of the Mafia's Royal Family, said airports attract a slew of different criminal groups.

"The airports are used by the Colombian cocaine cartels, Sicilian Mafia and somewhat by the Hells Angels, although not to the extent of the seaports," Lamothe said in an interview.

In a startling admission, Fraser said Transport Canada does not necessarily consider drug smuggling or "other criminal activity" grounds for denying clearance.

But the auditor-general says aviation officials should be concerned about people with these backgrounds.

"These people can be co-opted. If someone is paid to put a package on a plane, do they really know if it's drugs or if it's something more lethal?" Fraser said.

Yesterday, the federal government launched an immediate review of all security passes given to airport workers across the country — 131,000 in all.

Equally troubling, Fraser says the watch lists used by immigration officers to stop terrorists and criminals at the borders are out-of-date and in "disarray."

In one case, a known terrorist was not listed because his name got lost in the computer system.

The list used by Canadian immigration officers at border crossings is routinely missing suspected terrorists named by American authorities or identified in Interpol red notices, used to name some of the world's most dangerous organized crime and terrorist figures.

There were no updates to the immigration department's watch list from June to November, 2001. When the department finally updated its records, more than 1,500 names were added. "Those left off the list included two of the Sept. 11 hijackers whom U.S. authorities had identified in August, 2001."

The report estimates the immigration department's watch list is missing eight per cent of wanted terrorists.

"The failure to update watch lists means that the names of thousands of suspected terrorists have been left off the list for months at a time," Fraser told a news conference yesterday.

The Bush administration, which regularly casts a wary eye at perceived security gaps on its northern border, reacted cautiously to Fraser's findings, the Star's Tim Harper reports from Washington.

A spokesperson for Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge said Fraser's report showed there was much work to be done in Canada, just there is a long way to go in the United States to make North America safer.

"This would be a concern to us if our partners in Canada were not taking steps to improve security since Sept. 11, 2001," said Brian Roehrkasse, Ridge's chief spokesperson.

"Both Canada and the United States have taken significant steps to improve security, but we both have a long way to go."

Other officials speaking privately, however, said the Fraser report is likely to spark more anxiety in the United States.

"There will be concern, but at least initially that concern will be passed along privately," said a government official who asked not to be named. "Questions will be asked about information on lost or stolen Canadian passports and why that is not tighter."

Fraser also said poor co-ordination among Canadian security agencies has "led to gaps in intelligence coverage as well as duplication."

In one case, an alert to a potential threat was sent using the government's top-secret messaging system but was addressed incorrectly. It was only a month later that officials discovered the message had never been received. "Fortunately, the alert turned out to be a false alarm," the report says.

On another occasion, an alert from an ally was never circulated to the federal department that needed to see it.

Equally troubling, the Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness — the agency that would direct the government's response in a major emergency — is not fully tied into government communications networks.

In an effort to improve co-ordination, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service created a new agency last year to bring together key intelligence agencies. Yet four departments — Foreign Affairs, Citizenship and Immigration, Solicitor-General and Privy Council Office — have refused to take part.

If it were not for personal ties among security personnel at places like Pearson International Airport, key tips and information wouldn't get passed along, Fraser found.

However, she does note her audit was done prior to last December, when the government created the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Pr eparedness, which brought security agencies under one roof.

Prime Minister Paul Martin defended his administration's record on security matters.

"One of the very first things that the new government did upon taking office was to consolidate all of the activities required for national security," Martin told the Commons.

But Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said "the Liberals are still asleep at the switch on national security matters."

In other revelations, Fraser said:

Close to $40 million was spent on machines to electronically scan fingerprints and transmit them digitally. But only last week was the RCMP — which has the country's fingerprint databank — promised the funding to analyze the prints electronically. The police force is still checking prints by hand, eliminating the benefits of the new equipment.

Ottawa's only government-wide analysis of its handling of the Sept. 11, 2001 crisis was a four-page document discussed over dinner. "No record of the discussion was kept and no follow-up or action plan resulted," she found.

WITH FILES FROM GRAHAM FRASER


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