Feb. 24, 2004. 06:30 AM
Security chief fears for Canadian flights
Wants more details on jet passengers
Adviser urges senators to pass Bill C-7


OTTAWA—Canada continues to receive specific terrorist threats against Canadian flights and urgently needs expanded powers to gather more information on airline passengers, says Prime Minister Paul Martin's top national security adviser.

Robert Wright referred twice yesterday to threats to Canadian aviation while testifying at a Senate committee and "implored" senators to support broader information gathering.

"I can tell you, sir, that there are specific threats against Canadians and Canadian aircraft that we have an obligation to protect them from," he said.

Later, Wright tried to downplay the concern saying it was one flight that "was dealt with" without the measures in the bill.

But he urged senators to quickly pass Bill C-7, a transport security bill leftover from the Chrétien government that would allow federal agencies to collect information on passengers travelling within Canada and to places other than the United States.

Until now, Parliament has authorized only the collection of information on passengers arriving in Canada from abroad, as well as the collection and release to American authorities of information on passengers travelling from Canada to the U.S.

"Remember, an awful lot of Canadian flights go through U.S. airspace even when it's between two Canadian cities," Wright said.

He also reminded senators of several transatlantic flights to the U.S. that American authorities cancelled since December over security concerns.

Wright ran into some resistance, with Conservative Senator Norm Atkins suggesting there should be more review powers or a "sunset clause" on the powers sought.

Wright responded that the bill already strikes a balance, and again stressed there are real and pressing concerns.

"I just wanted to say that Canada continues to receive some specific threats for some air travel (that) we really need more tools to deal with."

Wright did not provide details, and when later pressed by reporters to clarify, was reluctant to elaborate.

"Canada does receive threats and Canada does respond to those threats," he said.

Wright then said he was referring to one "earlier circumstance where the legislative provisions in C-7 would have substantially assisted us in identifying who's on aircraft departing from Canada."

Wright said that flight was not cancelled. "We took care of the issue the way we had to take care of the issue. I've just used it as an example to say C-7 is important to us."

Last year a Toronto-bound El Al flight from Tel Aviv was diverted to Montreal, then to Hamilton, because of an unspecified threat.

At the time, there were suggestions that authorities feared the plane could be shot down as it landed or departed from Pearson International Airport en route to Los Angeles.

Wright and other top security officials appeared before the Senate committee on national security and defence to help the senators prepare for a trip next month to Washington.

They said the senators should respond to criticism that Canada is slack on security matters with facts, and made several statements, including:

Wright said 80 per cent of Canada's refugee claimants, deemed by the U.S. to be from "high-risk" countries, come to Canada via the U.S. or via a third country with a U.S. visa.

But he said a "safe third country " agreement is facing delays in the U.S., and would not be implemented for several months.

(Wright's figure represents a step up in the rhetoric that Canadian officials usually use when talking about how many refugees come to Canada via the U.S. Officials here usually cite an estimated over-all 40 per cent of refugee claimants in this country arrive via the U.S.)

"The U.S. has got to be part of a solution for Canadian security as well," he said.

Wright later conceded Canada has also not passed regulations to implement the accord. They are still in draft form, and expected to be published later this year.

Wright said a U.S. Library of Congress report last week that stated Canada is "a favoured destination for terrorists and international organized crime groups" made "several overstatements" and was "simplistic in many respects."

Wright said he does not recommend a national colour-coded alert system, such as the U.S. has, saying Canada has so far "determined a more tailored threat-specific response is appropriate."

But he said it deserves a "long, hard look. It has some advantages, it has some disadvantages."

Wright said Ottawa is looking at streamlining and "perhaps even expediting a number of reviews for low-risk" refugee claimants, and "clearing the backlog of low-risk individuals" in order to focus on "the unknown more."

Wright admitted Canada cannot track some 30,000 people who are under deportation orders because it does not have an entry/exit tracking system. But he said authorities are focusing more resources on those deemed to be "higher risk."

Wright downplayed suggestions by the Prime Minister that there ought to be an expansion of foreign intelligence gathering by Canadian agents overseas, saying it is more a question of redirecting the intelligence efforts now focused on economic intelligence instead of national security.

Wright said Canada was farther ahead than the U.S. in terms of airline security when the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks occurred, because of the "terrible lessons learned from the Air India tragedy."

Alain Jolicoeur, head of the new Canadian Border Services Agency, said Canada has joined with the United States on special charter flights to deport 800 high-risk individuals from North America (130 of them from Canada) mainly to African countries since 2002.

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