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Canada's Air and Sea Vulnerability

Canada's multitude of air and sea ports are a sieve that international criminals, terrorists, and smugglers can exploit because of a lack of manpower, no national security standards, faulty controls, and inadequate advanced technology, the Canadian Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defense said in a recently released report.The U.S.'s vast, sparsely populated northern neighbor has 19 ports and 89 major airports. Although security was augmented thanks to wake-up calls including the 9-11 air attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the committee found that after the government commercialized the gateways to the country during the decade leading up to 2003, "the devolution of seaports and airports to local authorities has failed."

Among the litany of problems tagged by the committee was a dearth of manpower. "Security forces at seaports and airports are understaffed and ill-prepared to deal with organized crime and terrorism," the committee said, adding: "There is a need for specialized police in unique environments—and seaports and airports clearly qualify as unique environments."

The committee noted that in the Netherlands, the Port of Rotterdam—one of the world's largest—has a permanent police force numbering 420. In comparison, a mere 24 Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) patrol Canada's 19 ports, and every one of them is posted in the three largest—Halifax, Montreal, or Vancouver. Assistant Commissioner Raf Souccar, head of the RCMP's Federal and International Operations, said 900 additional police were needed at the seaports.

The committee found Canadian airports are no better off.

"After the airport authorities assumed control of their airports after the government privatized them in the late 1990s, many airports greatly reduced the size of their police contingents," the report said. The Pearson International Airport in Toronto reduced its police force to 162 officers in 2005 from 290 a decade earlier. At the same time, passenger traffic at the airfield increased by more than 3.3 million people.

Nationwide, the committee recommended an increase in the size of the RCMP of between 600 and 800 full-timers to increase its ability to secure the airports and expand its investigative and analytical capabilities. In addition, the committee called for the RCMP to be designated as the lead police force at all Canadian air and sea ports "with adequate funding to combat security breaches caused by the presence of organized crime at those ports."

Organized crime linked to the country's sea and air ports encompasses Eastern European and Asian groups and outlaw motorcycle gangs, such as the Hell's Angels. Overall, the committee recommended a major review of security at all ports and the establishment of a national approach to training, recruiting, and the retention of security personnel.

Scrutiny of cargo was also labeled a problem. Canadian seaports funnel nearly four million containers filled with assorted commodities in and out of the country each year, with about 30 percent destined for the United States.

"Border officials inspect only a small percentage of shipping containers," said the committee. There are only 15 Vehicle and Cargo Inspection Systems (VACIS)—nonintrusive imaging technology that uses penetrating gamma rays to inspect cargo—to peer into the flow of containers, and 60 trained personnel to operate the machines. "To do the job properly would take at least double the current amount of equipment and triple the personnel," the committee noted.

As an example to follow, the committee showcased Hutchison Port Holdings, the world's biggest international container terminal operation, which is spread across 43 ports in 20 countries. Hutchison's container scanning system, now being used in Hong Kong, scrutinizes every container that leaves a port and can keep pace with cargo moving onto ships at an average rate of 16 kilometers per hour. (The Hong Kong experience has been cited by others as a model as well.)

The scanning system at the airports was improved to check most of the 660,000 tonnes of cargo and baggage and 94 million passengers going aboard aircraft each year, but mail that travels on passenger planes from Canadian airports is often not given the same attention. Canada Post ships about four percent of its daily mail by air, or approximately 1.9 million pieces.

"Canada Post employees do visual inspections looking for suspicious parcels, but parcels are not scanned," said the committee. Likewise, not all checked baggage at the airports is screened for explosives. The committee recommended checking all materials being loaded onto aircraft for weapons and potentially volatile liquids and gels, including airline catering service carts.

Inadequate protection of restricted areas was also pointed out. The committee said none of the Canadian ports have either waterside fencing or 24/7 waterside police patrols. Meanwhile, the airports conduct only random searches of people entering restricted zones, cherry-picking who they search and when. "Persons and vehicles should be checked every time going into restricted areas. Random checks should be conducted coming out," said the committee.

Numerous other deficiencies at Canada's sea and air ports were detailed by the committee in the lengthy report, including long lags between employee background checks; delays in training; incomprehensive training; inadequate presence of Canadian intelligence officers at foreign ports; insufficient checks of flight crews and ground crews; vulnerable cockpit doors; and a lack of screening of passengers, luggage and vehicles that go aboard ships and ferries.

"Threats to our seaports and borders obviously aren't just a threat to any one location that might be breached. Gaps at these locations make every location in Canada vulnerable," the committee said. They make the U.S. vulnerable too.