Canadian Air Security: No Border Above

As I passed through pre-board screening (PBS)
in Canada’s London, Ontario, airport, I found the screeners to be
pleasant, careful and alert. They seemed to embody at least some of the
virtues of good security: They were unhurried, made eye contact, and
paid careful attention to the job at hand. They were clothed in snazzy
new uniforms intended to forge a team identity and boost morale. They
were equipped with the latest technology.

All the more surprising, then, when Peter St. John told me: “The security system at airports in Canada doesn’t work.”

If anyone is an authority on the subject,
it’s St. John—one of the true experts on air security. He was consulted
for a Canadian Auditor General’s audit of airport security earlier this
year and also served as an expert witness to Canada’s Standing Senate
Committee on National Security and Defence. The Committee’s findings
were summed up in an alarming document titled The Myth of Canadian
Airport Security.

Canadian security

As in the United States after Sept. 11, 2001,
Canada federalized its aviation security, establishing the Canadian Air
Transport Security Authority (CATSA) to take over control of PBS, which
was then controlled by the airlines, and establish national standards
for employment and training of officers. It was part of Canada’s $8
billion counterterror initiative announced in its December 2001 budget.

In its most basic sense, CATSA is a funding
agency. It contracts the actual screening out to such local security
firms as Garda World Security, which holds the contract for Lester B.
Pearson Airport in Toronto. While it does not employ screeners
directly, it does control the wages they earn and their training.

CATSA reports to Transport Canada, the
authority ultimately responsible for all forms of commercial
transportation in Canada. Transport Canada sets the rules, such as the
items that cannot be taken on board an aircraft, and CATSA enforces
them. CATSA responsibilities extend beyond pre-board screening,
however. It also awards a contract for providing sky marshals, known in
Canada as Armed Police Officers (APOs), and about half of its budget
goes to equipping airports with EDS, or explosives detection systems,
for screening luggage that goes into the cargo hold. CATSA has also
been given the responsibility of upgrading the pass system that admits
airport employees to restricted areas.

Unlike British security officers or US sky
marshals, Canadian APOs operate covertly. According to the report
produced by the Senate committee examining air security issues, only
the pilot and the chief flightattendant are told when an APO is on
board, and even they do not know the identity of the APO. These
officers operate under cover because of fears that flight attendants
might turn to the APO for assistance in a confrontation with an unruly

But what if an unruly passenger was part of a
terrorist team? If the APO steps in to quell the disruption, his
identity would be revealed. Then the other team members could, in the
words of the Senate report, “… take out the APO and get on with the
business of assaulting the cockpit.” In view of this, the senators
agreed that operating covertly made sense, but felt all members of the
flight crew should be informed when an APO is on board.

At the request of the United States, Canada
has placed APOs on all flights to Washington, DC’s Ronald Reagan
Airport. APOs also ride along on some flights to other US destinations
and on a few domestic flights, as well. The contract for providing APOs
is currently held by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and runs
until March 31, 2007.

Thanks to the APOs, the reinforcement of
cockpit doors on passenger aircraft undertaken by Transport Canada and
CATSA’s improvements to pre-board screening, passengers aboard Canadian
aircraft feel more secure than ever. Some airsecurity critics feel
differently. They would like to see APOs on every flight, and would
like to see double doors installed on aircraft. But they reserve their
harshest criticisms for the security problems that exist on the airside
of Canada’s airports, the part of the airport that most passengers
never see.

Airside vulnerability

Auditor General Sheila Fraser has found that
the back door at Canadian airports remains wide open. In preparing her
recent audit of airport security, she asked the RCMP to check the
backgrounds of workers with security clearances. They found 3.5 percent
merited further investigation or had “criminal associations” — or about
4,500 workers with airside access.

Other investigations have found evidence of
ongoing criminal activities. The fear is that, where criminals operate
freely, so can terrorists. As Inspector Sam Landry, head of RCMP
Detachment at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, told the Senate hearings, “…
infiltration of our border at Toronto airport by the criminal element
also has the potential of being exploited by those associated with
extremism or terrorism.”

To make a point about lax security Sen. Colin
Kenny, who chaired the committee studying air security, once asked a
taxi driver to drive him into a secure area at Pearson Airport. No one
stopped or challenged him. Some months later, a pair of reporters from
the Globe and Mail performed a similar feat.

“As long as all the airside personnel are not
searched daily when they come to work, they have not done the job at
airports, “Kenny said. “This is especially true in light of the fact
that the police have told them repeatedly about the organized criminal
gangs working airside.”

To close this back door, investigators have
begun the process of checking into the backgrounds of more than 110,000
airport employees. To control access to secure areas, CATSA will be
issuing a new Restricted Area Identification Card (RAIC) that
incorporates biometric data. Because a biometric scan of the card
holder is necessary for the pass to function, stealing a pass will be
useless and the passes will incorporate features that make them
virtually impossible to forge.

“We will be selecting four airports of
different sizes to test iris and fingerprint technology,” CATSA
spokesperson Renee Fairweather said. “We’re one of the first countries
in the world to incorporate biometrics into a restricted area
identification card.”

The Canadian front

Firming up security airside is a race against
the terrorists, for there is clear evidence that they are present in
Canada. In September 2003, the US Library of Congress Federal Research
Division released a report entitled Nations Hospitable to Organized
Crime and Terrorism. According to the report “… terrorists and
international organized crime groups increasingly are using Canada as
an operational base and transit country en route to the United States.”

On Dec. 14, 1999, US Customs caught Ahmed
Ressam of Montreal trying to smuggle explosives into the United States.
In Montreal on June 21, 2001, the RCMP arrested Algerian-born Adel
Tobbichi on suspicion he had participated in a plot to bomb the US
embassy in Paris. On March 30 of this year, an Ottawa resident,
Mohammad Momim Khawaja, was arrested and charged with participating in
a terrorist group and facilitating terrorist activity. A news report
tied him to the arrest of eight men in England who had been caught with
explosive materials.

There have also been direct threats to
aircraft. In October 2003, an El Al flight to Toronto was diverted
twice because of a suspected threat. Robert Wright, national security
advisor to Prime Minister Paul Martin, told the Senate National
Security and Defence Committee in February of this year that a number
of threats had been made against Canadian aircraft. As recently as
April 28, 2004, a threat to Air Canada Flight 109 to Vancouver caused
NORAD to scramble CF-18 fighters to intercept it. Fortunately, the
plane landed without incident.


It would be foolish to assume that terrorist
strategists would ignore the opportunity presented by the
5,525-mile-long US/Canada border (7,000 miles if Alaska is included).
The traffic that flows across this border is massive, worth more than
$1.5 billion dollars daily, amounting to 25 percent of US foreign trade
and 90 percent of Canada’s.

According to Professor Wesley K. Wark of the
University of Toronto, an expert on intelligence and security, “It is
foolish to try to distinguish between a threat to American civil
aviation and a threat to Canadian civil aviation.”

 Could a terrorist attack against the United
States ever be launched from Canada? Professor Wark admits, “It would
make eminent sense for Canada to be used in that way.”

Air security expert Peter St. John was characteristically blunt. “I always thought so,” he said.

American homeland security depends in part on
Canada’s air security—a fact that must be acknowledged by American
security personnel. There’s only one sky over North America, and it
will take everyone working together to secure it.  HST

WR Stephens is a writer based in London, Ontario. His work has appeared in Outdoor Canada, Scene Magazine and on

Reports and links mentioned in this article:

1. Report of the Canadian Standing Senate Committee on National
Security and Defence. The Myth of Security at Canada’s Airports
(January 2003).

2. 2004 Report of the Auditor General of
Canada. National Security in Canada: The 2001 Anti-Terrorism
Initiative. March 2004 Report — Chapter 3. http:// 20040303ce.html

3. Transport Canada. backgrounders/menu.htm

4. CATSA. index.htm

5. Garda of Canada.

6. Canadian airports.

London International Airport (London, Ontario).

Vancouver International Airport (Vancouver, British Columbia).

Lester B. Pearson International Airport (Toronto, Ontario).

7. Securing an Open Society: Canada’s
National Security Policy (April 2004) http://www.pco-bcp.gc.

8. Nations Hospitable To Organized Crime And Terrorism.  A Report
Prepared by the Federal Research Division, US Library of Congress
(October 2003).

One skeptic

Aviation expert Peter St. John remains skeptical of the Canadian
investment in technology. “Technology breaks down, technology makes
mistakes, and it’s only as good as the people handling it,” he pointed
out. He thinks the money would be better spent on people.

St. John points to the Malaysian solution to
aviation security: “The Malaysians offered really good pay for security
people, so good that people left the Malaysian police to come into
airport security. They got rewarded financially every time they found
infractions, and they got sent to a better airport if they did a really
good job.”

He thinks both Canada and the US can learn
from British air security as well, particularly the way British sky
marshals approach their jobs. “In Britain, they’re called security
officers, and they accompany their planeload of passengers right from
the ticket counter all the way through security. By the time that
officer gets to the plane, he really knows those passengers,” he said.

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