Intelligence experts warn Defence to act quickly on fixing screening process

Thursday, April 12, 2007

OTTAWA -- The Department of National Defence has to move quickly to prevent foreign spies and terrorists from taking advantage of loopholes and delays in its security screening system, security experts said yesterday.

"It's a problem that has to be fixed," said Wesley Wark, a professor at the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto.

Prof. Wark said the Canadian Forces cannot allow themselves to be infiltrated by bad apples, regardless of their origin.

"There is always a possibility of a penetration by foreign intelligence services or by terrorist organizations, which, these days, we simply cannot afford," he said.

The backlog in the screening of DND employees stood at 26,000 files last year, and has been reduced to 18,000. The ultimate goal, said Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Shuster, is to have a maximum of 8,000 cases in the screening process at any one time.

But DND will not reduce the massive backlog in its screening of current and new employees overnight. The department is set to hire 30 extra employees to do the job in three groups of 10 over the next three years.

"The biggest thing from where we're at now is personnel, the lack of personnel to actually do the security clearance screening," Col. Shuster said.

He said the screening of new and current employees, whether in the military or civilian branches at DND, is absolutely necessary.

"On a fairly regular basis . . . we identify individuals who probably do not fit in with the Canadian Forces," said the Deputy Provost Marshal at DND.

A recent audit of the screening system at DND identified a number of deficiencies, and recommended the whole process be toughened.

Details about the problems the auditors found were excised from the public version of the document.

Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University, said there are many examples all over the world of enemy infiltration of militaries and other key security organizations.

Canada is not immune, he said, and the situation at DND is clearly inadequate. The key is better screening at the time of hiring, as well as constant monitoring of employees by managers.

"If there are weaknesses on the incoming screening, there are other weaknesses that not only DND, but all other government departments, need to build up a capacity to withstand as they face the threat of infiltration by adversaries," Prof. Rudner said.

Liberal MP Denis Coderre said the audit raises a number of serious questions.

"These 18,000 people -- where do they come from and what jobs are they asked to do?" he said. "Did these people hide things? Do they have skeletons in their closets? It goes as far as asking, if the people come from the outside, are they part of a dormant cell?"

A spokeswoman for Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor countered that the problems were caused by the previous Liberal government.

"Canada's new government will ensure that DND takes concrete and immediate action to rectify the situation that happened under the previous government," Isabelle Bouchard said.

The audit stated that the RCMP has a much more stringent clearance system and considers much more information in determining the reliability of its new hires.

"The RCMP has recognized the importance of the reliability process and, consequently, has implemented a much more rigorous reliability assessment and confirmation process," the audit stated.