Column

TERROR AND THE PORTS

Haphazard security and the grip of the crime families alarm a Senate committee

MARY JANIGAN July 1 2002
Column

TERROR AND THE PORTS

Haphazard security and the grip of the crime families alarm a Senate committee

MARY JANIGAN July 1 2002

TERROR AND THE PORTS

Haphazard security and the grip of the crime families alarm a Senate committee

Column

MARY JANIGAN

IF ITS FINDINGS were not so unnerving, the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence would be considered charmingly offbeat. For more than a year, its members have trundled diligently across the nation, inspecting security procedures on the nation’s perimeter. At just about every stop, members have listened patiently while an Ottawa bureaucrat, flown in specially for the hearing, has offered bland assurances about safety: everything is fine; nothing to worry about. Then they have persistently, and occasionally privately, met with the “real” people: police forces on the ground, union members, customs inspectors. And they have uncovered chilling glimpses of haphazard security—and the very real potential for deals between organized crime and terrorists. “We Canadians have been living in a dream world,” says Conservative Senator Michael Meighen. “But the real world is a more dangerous place.”

Clearly. Although the committee is prying into everything from the condition of military equipment to cyber threats, it has made its most unsettling discoveries in the ports. In Vancouver, an intelligence analyst testified that Asian triads, Russian gangsters and narco-terrorists have infiltrated the docks. But, as the committee acidly notes, port officials view security measures as “expensive and time-consuming.” In Halifax, a senior police officer estimated that 39 per cent of the longshoremen have criminal records. In Montreal, police reckoned that 15 per cent of the stevedores have criminal records—as do 36 per cent of workers who check cargo containers. But applicants to the union supplying the dock workers “must be sponsored by insiders who are sometimes members of crime families and their friends.” The committee caustically adds that port authorities in all three cities are in a state of denial about organized crime. “We have been absolutely shocked by what we have heard,” says Liberal Senator Colin Kenny,

the committee’s chairman. “What became apparent to us was there was a whole underground system of governance in some ports which the police were aware of—but did not have the resources to address.”

The committee was so disturbed by its findings that its report, tabled last February, called for a judicial inquiry into port security “as soon as possible.” Kenny points out that a van in a cargo container could easily accommodate several nuclear devices, which could be set off with a cellphone. But, even after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, port authorities behave like chamber of commerce presidents, concentrating on the efficiency of their operations. “We did not go to the ports as crime busters,” Kenny says. “But it is clear to us that where organized crime is flourishing, terrorism has a welcome bedmate.”

Ottawa will probably not call an inquiry. But the government must produce an official response to the committee’s initial 18 recommendations this fall. Insiders say the RCMP is paying more attention to the ports, partly due to the committee’s findings. And they point out that last December’s budget set aside $60 million over the next five years for improved port and marine security. Since the attacks, three Canadian ports have also agreed to allow U.S. customs officials to inspect cargo bound for U.S. ports. Canada has received similar privileges in two U.S. ports. But customs inspectors have limited resources: at a maximum, they can check only three per cent of container traffic.

So security in the port itself must be

Chairman Kenny points out that a van in a cargo container could easily hold several nuclear devices, which could be set off with a cellphone

massively increased: after all, access passes are only as reliable as the people who hold them. As a trading nation, Canada would be devastated if cargo traffic were paralyzed because of a terrorist incident. We have to move fast—because the U.S. is moving very fast. In early June, the House of Representatives passed a bill allowing the Coast Guard to deny entry to any ship that does not meet security standards or comes from a port with shoddy anti-terrorism procedures. The architect of this approach, retired U.S. Coast Guard commander Stephen Flynn, points out that four private terminal operators account for 65 per cent of global container movement. “Clearly, their incentive to comply is that they need the system not to go into gridlock,” he says. “Then their whole life could come to a halt.”

Even those precautions are only a first step—because determined terrorists often find ways to thwart ground security. Better intelligence would deter them before they even get near the ports. But, as the committee notes, Ottawa has done little to centralize authority over its intelligence: one small, overworked unit in the Privy Council Office analyzes data from as many as 13 agencies. It’s hard to grasp the big picture. The committee calls for a national security policy that would outline the roles of all levels of government. “I don’t see any big ideas or much energy in Ottawa,” says Wesley Wark, an espionage expert at Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies. “We need to take a serious look at capability and organization, at cabinetlevel handling of intelligence.”

In the meantime, Kenny’s committee is busy gathering evidence for its next report. In early May, members popped into a border checkpoint in Prescott, Ont., asking the official on duty to describe his last refugee claimant. It was woman who appeared to qualify, said the guard, so he let her into Canada. Her hearing would be in 2004. He had no idea where she was. The committee is also focusing its attention on major airports, checking out rumours that Hells Angels members are involved in the delivery of some services. “We just go through things step by step,” says Kenny, “and ask the dumb questions.” It is some answers that deserve that epithet. iîfl

Mary Janigan’s column appears every other Issue. mjanigan@macleans.ca