|Mar. 30, 2004. 06:24 AM|
Auditor targets airports, passports
OTTAWA—Just weeks after forcing Liberals to their knees with her multi-million-dollar revelations about the Quebec advertising scandal, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser is about to kick them in the ribs.With her unerring ability to target administrative failures that infuriate taxpayers and grab headlines, Fraser will not only question the efficiency of Canada's intelligence-sharing apparatus, she will reveal today that this country's airports aren't secure and its passport controls are dangerously weak.Her hard look at Ottawa's $7.7 billion, post-Sept. 11 security spending spree won't harm the ruling party quite as much as her suggestion that politicians and bureaucrats conspired to fleece the public purse. But it will hurt at home and, perhaps more significantly, it will hurt Canada's credibility in the U.S. capital. Damaging enough in themselves, those security problems come loaded with troubling implications for relations with Washington that Prime Minister Paul Martin came to office determined to fix. Short of a terrorist attack launched from Canadian territory, not much would worry the U.S. more than doubts about airports and passports. While airport security is always a top-of-mind U.S. issue, new doubts about the integrity of Canadian passports could prove as damaging.It will take about a millisecond for Americans, who want nothing more from Canada than a secure border, to remember how close Ahmed Ressam came to smuggling bomb-making materials into the U.S. using a passport he obtained illegally. Only a sharp-eyed customs officer stood between Ressam — who used now tightened regulations to create a false identity and obtain a Canadian passport — and what U.S. authorities claim was a millennium Al Qaeda plot. So Fraser's finding that it takes Canada six months to flag a stolen passport will send a chill down spines and through this country's critical relationship. What makes it worse is that Ottawa has a long history of failing to protect the integrity of a passport that is highly respected internationally and therefore hugely attractive to those with crime and mayhem on their minds. As it turns out, those elements may also have friends on the tarmac at Canada's major airports. Fraser is expected to blow the whistle on federal security procedures that make passengers feel like criminals while doing far too little to ensure aircraft are protected.It's another issue designer-made to raise anxiety about a northern neighbour in a country still traumatized by the Sept. 11, 2001, horrors in New York and Washington. And, once again, the federal government can't claim it knew nothing.Surprisingly shortly after those attacks, the Senate's security committee began warning that Canada's ports, both air and sea, are vulnerable. Along with finding fault with the infrastructure, the committee warned those key facilities were rife with criminal elements.Jean Chrétien's response was typically muted; Martin's is just as typically vocal. Security is the theme of the week here. Led by deputy prime minister and security czarina Anne McLellan, almost everyone is talking, mostly reassuringly, about what this government has done, and is doing, to make its citizens safer and Uncle Sam more confident that America's back door is locked, not just loosely latched.What they are not talking about is another security concern, one that is more sinister and could further damage Canada's reputation. Following a three-year RCMP investigation leading to charges against Immigration Review Board adjudicator Yves Bourbonnais and a ring of alleged accomplices, federal officials are reviewing hundreds of cases hoping to find that bribes didn't allow criminals and security threats to escape deportation.So far, that very troubling possibility has only blipped on the national news radar. But more charges are pending and, combined with Fraser's revelations today and continuing difficulties sorting out who does what in McLellan's security superministry, will send a signal that is stronger than it is reassuring. Fraser, who faces quiet, determined opposition from some Liberals who accuse of her of encroaching on policy decisions, will pick her words carefully today, but even so, the Martin administration is clearly bracing for another bout of bad news. At the very least, they will spend the next few days trying to reassure taxpayers that the billions committed to security in the December, 2001 budget are being well spent.Among other sensitive things, Fraser is expected to question the efficiency and slow-development of Ottawa's new internal intelligence sharing system. Established after Sept. 11, its efforts to ensure the right information is in the right hands at the right time is being delayed, some say thwarted, by bureaucratic resistance.That, too, will erode Canada's reputation in Washington, where the failure to share information between secretive agencies remains highly contentious.It remains to be seen if Fraser will have much good to say about a government plan that threw money at the same issues that will be back in the news today. But it certainly won't go unnoticed that the security priorities identified in that budget are now the focus of the auditor-general's concerns.Hurriedly crafted by Martin, then the finance minister, it earmarked $2.2 billion over five years for what it billed as "A new Approach to Airport Security." High on the government's to-do list was tighter control of airport baggage-handling facilities and the tarmac.Another $1 billion was targeted at improving screening of visitors, immigrants and refugees while $1.6 billion was allotted to security operations, including better information sharing between law enforcement, intelligence and national spy agencies. Along with quieting domestic fears, that budget recognized the direct connection between Washington's security concerns and keeping the border open to the goods and services that sustain the Canadian economy. Any suggestion that the federal government hasn't done everything possible to keep U.S. concerns from damaging more than $1 billion in daily two-way trade will be a kick in the ribs for a government that's already down and trying hard to restore its image as a prudent financial manager.