cover

HOW SAFE ARE WE?

Canada is the only nation on an al-Qaeda list of targets they has not yet been attacked. And as JOHN GEDDES and CHARLIE GILLIS report we're woef unprepared.

July 18 2005
cover

HOW SAFE ARE WE?

Canada is the only nation on an al-Qaeda list of targets they has not yet been attacked. And as JOHN GEDDES and CHARLIE GILLIS report we're woef unprepared.

July 18 2005

HOW SAFE ARE WE?

cover

Canada is the only nation on an al-Qaeda list of targets they has not yet been attacked. And as JOHN GEDDES and CHARLIE GILLIS report we're woef unprepared.

BACK WHEN SHE WAS A LAW STUDENT at the University of London in the mid-seventies, Anne McLellan’s local Tube stop was Russell Square. It was in the tunnel between that station and King’s Cross that one of the London subway trains exploded last week, killing at least 21 people and wounding many more. When McLellan, Canada’s minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, saw the TV images of her old haunts now serving as back-

drops for interviews with witnesses to carnage, her thoughts flew back. “My gosh, these were the places I went,” she said in an interview at the end of a marathon day of orchestrating the Canadian government’s response to the attacks. “I know these people.” She didn’t mean as individuals, of course, but as Londoners, that special breed. It was

that sense of connection that made this attack feel different than Madrid or Bali. Many more Canadians have studied or worked in London, or simply taken a vacation there. But if there could be no questioning the personal intensity of McLellan’s reaction to the latest terrorist outrage, some experts were questioning the adequacy of the federal anti-

EWE?

rías not yet been attacked, / unprepared.

terrorism strategy she oversees. Her cabinet post was created in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to centralize Ottawa’s strategy for trying to prevent a terror strike here—and also to prepare for the worst. Since 2001, the Liberals increased security spending by more than $9 billion, on everything from hiring more intelligence agents to revamping airport procedures. But critics who have kept close watch since then, most prominently Senator Colin Kenny, the Liberal chairman of the Senate standing committee on national security and defence, say the money is inadequate and a sense of urgency is missing.

Following the nightmare scenes in the British capital, Kenny is hoping a surge in public pressure will force the federal government to get more serious. “Will London wake up Canadians?” he said. “Canada is the only country on the al-Qaeda list that hasn’t been hit yet.” He was referring to a document from the terrorist group that counted Canada, along with the U.S., Britain, Spain and Australia, as its top target nations. McLellan also alluded to that notorious hit list last week. But while Kenny views Ottawa’s response to Osama bin Laden’s explicit threat as lax in many ways, McLellan boasts that it has been comprehensive. Sorting out who’s right—across policies ranging from electronic eavesdropping and stockpiling medical supplies to searching massive container ships and scrutinizing individual passports—is no simple matter.

A good starting point is the “Canadian Security Guide Book,” produced late last year by Kenny’s committee. The 315-page compendium alleges dozens of alarming shortcomings in Canada’s security policies— suggesting coastlines are inadequately patrolled, border crossings manned by undertrained part-timers, and airports staffed by employees who are not subjected to thorough background checks. Even McLellan’s aides concede that the facts compiled by Kenny’s researchers are generally accurate, although they dispute many of the more troubling conclusions his committee draws.

ANY LOOK at federal security policy needs to start by asking whether enough is being done to boost Canada’s ability to stop terrorists before they strike. The fact that even the vaunted British intelligence services failed to pick up any advance hint of last week’s bombings is a grim reminder of how tough that job is.

Kenny’s committee charges that Ottawa is “cutting corners on intelligence” and that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service must expand “on a far larger scale than it has to date.” The senators level that criticism despite a post-Sept. 11 hike of $1.6 billion over five years for intelligence and policing. CSIS is using its share to expand by about 10 per cent. The Communications Security Establishment, which conducts electronic eaves-

dropping on suspected spies and terrorists, will by 2007-08 have seen its budget boosted by 57 per cent from before 9/11, to $220 million. Even Kenny admits the main obstacle to expanding intelligence today isn’t money, it’s the time needed to recruit and train agents. “It takes about as long to get a CSIS analyst trained,” he said, “as it does to get a neurosurgeon.”

The range of vulnerable targets those intelligence analysts need to worry about is daunting. Maclean’s talked to experts about three unsettling scenarios—the kind CSIS must try to find out about, and stop, before they happen.

Destroying or even temporarily cutting off the Ambassador Bridge, the busiest border crossing in North America would, in Kenny’s words, “lay waste to Canada’s political and economic future.” The 555-m structure connecting Windsor, Ont., and Detroit is protected under an arrangement between the police, the Canadian and U.S. border services, the two countries’ coast guards and the U.S. company that controls it. But even the owner, the Detroit International Bridge Company, acknowledges its majestic asset remains needlessly vulnerable-due primarily to Canadian stubbornness.

The problem: suspicious vehicles crossing from either country aren’t searched until they reach the other side, where the respective countries have their customs booths. In the event of a terrorist attack, that’s about 555 m too late. While the Bush administration has passed legislation that would allow Canada and the U.S. to simply switch ends, the Canadian government has been dragging its heels, citing sovereignty issues and the problem of having armed U.S. officers on its soil (Canadian border officers do not carry guns).

“This is a simple step, in our opinion,” says Skip McMahon, special projects coordinator for the bridge corporation. Canada could simply agree to an exchange of land with the U.S., giving the border installations the same status as embassies, he suggests. The current system, says McMahon, “is like inspecting someone’s luggage after they get off the plane.”

Stunning, considering the importance of this single structure to Canada’s financial welfare. With 3.5 million trucks and seven million cars crossing each year, the Ambassador Bridge is a cornerstone of our export-reliant economy. If a terrorist chose to detonate a

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trunkload of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel at its centre, he would blow an enormous hole in our $500-billion trade relationship with the U.S. In the short term, Washington would likely close the entire border. Canadian manufacturers—especially automakers—would lose their primary link to their market. Production would shift out of the country. The trucking industry would be devastated.

Are we at least prepared to grapple with this fallout? Hard to know. Ontario has been diligent in preparing an emergency plan in the wake of 9/11, and current legislation would empower the province to redirect traffic—

tive cloud. Typically, dirty bombs are made from dynamite and fissionable material, the intention being not to create a nuclear blast, but to disperse ionized particles that would sicken tens of thousands. Because radioactive fuel is hard to obtain in North America, some experts see cargo containers as the most likely means of getting a dirty bomb into the country, and the Port of Vancouver has two busy container docks.

As it stands, we are only somewhat ready for such a scenario. Like most cities, Vancouver has a comprehensive emergency plan, but it’s designed primarily around earthquakes, emphasizing things like firefighting,

people in a panic and the air filled with chemicals?

Odile Paradis, spokeswoman for the Société de Transport de Montréal (STM), says there are substantial emergency response measures in place. Whenever there is an attack or major public transportation accident anywhere in the world, other jurisdictions are debriefed about what went right, and what went wrong, she notes. And since 9/11, every emergency response team in Montreal knows what its job will be (a few months ago, the city ran a simulation of a response to a disaster at the Montreal stock exchange). In the case of a terrorist attack on the metro, the

THE COMMITTEE’S GUIDE BOOK CONCLUDED THAT OUR PORTS ARE ’RIDDLED WITH CRIMINALS’

possibly to the six-lane bridge in nearby Sarnia, Ont. The province could also get the feds involved under a provision in federal emergency laws, so Ottawa could deal with the economic implications and cross-border jurisdictional issues. By then, however, most of the damage will have been done.

Another worrisome scenario is a crude nuclear device going off in a major metropolis. A truly powerful dirty bomb is hard to make: it requires the kind of fuel left behind by a nuclear power station, and merely handling such material could be fatal to terrorists. But low-level radioactive fuel, like cesium-137 or cobalt-60, can be obtained from a university lab and moved with relative ease. It wouldn’t produce a particularly destructive weapon. But it would produce the desired effect, which is to say, panic.

The question, then, is where deploying such a bomb would maximize chaos. With two million people living in the region and a handful of comparatively narrow arteries leading out of the downtown, Vancouver is an obvious candidate. The urge to flee would almost certainly unleash mayhem throughout the downtown core, as residents sought to escape what they feared to be a radioac-

emergency shelter and electric power. Evacuating the city remains a logistical horror no one cares to contemplate. As for first-line response, authorities throughout the country have considered the threat of a dirty bomb entering the country through one of our seaports (the navy, coast guard and others have been rehearsing for such scenarios in Vancouver and Halifax). But the Kenny committee’s guide book concluded that Canada’s ports are “riddled with criminals whose mission it is to open up holes for smuggling.” And, it added, “A vulnerability to criminals is by definition a vulnerability to terrorists.” After the London attacks, vulnerable is also the way to describe Canadian cities’ subway systems. Montreal’s Charlevoix metro station, for example, is deep. Nothing to compare with the stations in St. Petersburg, Russia, some of which are over 100 m underground, but it is still 30 m from the lowest platform to street level. It takes a good 21/2 minutes to hurry from the bottom to the exit turnstiles, and another 40 seconds through a shopping mall until you are outside into air. Who knows how long it would take to get out in the dark, after an explosion or, say, a sarin gas attack, with

' response would be coordinated by Montreal’s police department, and its spokesmen too are more than happy to talk about emergency response. After last week’s bombings in the London Underground, Montreal police immediately posted officers at metro stations considered likely targets, with Charlevoix at the top of the list.

Both the police and the STM are much less keen to talk about preparedness and prevention. This is partly for security reasons: it would not be wise to tip their hand to the terrorists. But after 9/11, there was a lot of talk about “the new normal” being increased security at high-risk places like airports, train stations and subways. Many jurisdictions adopted vigilance programs like the one in place for years in the London Undergroundpublic address warnings about leaving packages unattended, and signs exhorting people to be on the lookout for suspicious behaviour. The STM has no such public vigilance system in place, and the only visible warnings in the stations pertain to littering.

Ultimately, a terrorist attack in Montreal is unimaginable—or at least that is what officials appear to be relying on. Spokesmen for both the STM and police empha-

size that there has never been an assault aimed at the metro, and there is no reason to think there will be. But we’d do well to recall that in 2002, the new commanding officer of the RCMP in Quebec called Montreal “a haven for terrorists,” and that Montreal was the home base for Ahmed Ressam, the would-be “millennium bomber.”

BLOWN BRIDGES, radiation panic, subway carnage—it’s tempting to wave it all off as too far-fetched to build policy around. But much of the planning for coping with the aftermath of a terrorist strike overlaps with preparing for the sorts of natural disasters and epidemics that are bound to occur.

One basic part of advance planning for any national crisis is to establish a nerve centre to manage the response. In the spring of 2004, after releasing a new “National Security Policy,” Ottawa finally set up a government operations centre to perform that crucial function. Yet Kenny’s report contends the job isn’t done. It says McLellan’s officials said the centre was up and running so soon after the policy was unveiled that their claim simply wasn’t credible. According to the committee, “the centre is a significant

ways from completion in terms of having all the infrastructure, procedures and personnel it needs in place to match the government’s pledge.”

That pattern is repeated in many other cases: the government boasts of progress, while critics express grave doubts. Even when change is in the right direction, its pace often appears sluggish. It is hard to understand why, for instance, McLellan’s first meeting with the provincial ministers responsible for emergency planning didn’t happen until last January, more than four years after the attacks on the U.S.

It was only last fall that Ottawa created the Public Health Agency of Canada, a move praised by Kenny’s committee as important progress toward focusing planning for the medical response to an attack. Agency officials told Maclean’s they are currently circulating among health authorities a plan for a new national Incident Command System, which would kick in if a terrorist strike killed and wounded many, or in a crisis caused by natural disaster or disease. The

main thrust is to have local health officials take the lead, with provincial and national resources automatically made available to them under a command structure agreed to in advance. It’s a sound strategy. But Canadians might well ask, why hasn’t something like this been in place long before now?

Kenny argues that even when good plans and policies are in place, the ongoing task of making sure they’ll work when needed has to be taken more seriously. That means running mock disasters and simulations on a regular basis. “You can’t just have these agencies out there,” he says. “You have to have them practising.” It’s worth noting that the London police and ambulance services, which functioned so well last week, benefited from experience with Irish Republican Army bombings that took place up until the early nineties. McLellan remembers walking in her student days past the shattered windows of the famous Harrods store just after an IRA strike. Canadians have no such history to learn from. Lucky up to now, we’re relying on lessons from abroad—which felt to many last week like they are getting closer. IÍ1

With Andrew Potter in Montreal