Shocking revelations this spring about security at Montreal’s airport caused Canada’s spy agency to mobilize “very quickly” and re-screen tens of thousands of files, one of its officials said Thursday.

TVA network reported March 28 that four Aéroport de Montréal employees lost their security clearance because they showed potential signs of being radicalized.

Employees had visited Islamic State propaganda sites and had looked up weapons and explosives documents, TVA reported.

It was not immediately clear whether Transport Canada and Canada's spy agency were aware about what was happening at the airport, prior to the media report.

But the TVA report caused Canada’s spies to scramble. Brian Rumig, assistant director for operations at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said the revelations contained in the report were of "concern to all of us.”

"We mobilized very quickly,” said Rumig at an appearance at the House of Commons transport committee on May 11, “to make sure we understood what that potential threat is."

In the aftermath of media reporting, CSIS "proactively re-screened" all 80,000 screening requests that it had received from the federal transport department between 2015 and 2016, Rumig said.

"We put that through another vetting process," said Rumig, and "we’re happy to say that was a positive result."

Transport Minister Marc Garneau also made a statement March 29 reassuring Canadians "that their government takes security matters very seriously."

The incident has put the spotlight on Canada’s airport security clearance regime.

“In the past year,” 48 security clearances were suspended, 20 were cancelled and 448 were refused, said Laureen Kinney, assistant deputy minister for safety and security at Transport Canada.

The department is in charge of granting and revoking security clearances at airports, and also regulates the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), which is a crown corporation in charge of traveller, baggage and worker screening.

Every person who accesses airport restricted areas must undergo a federal background check before being issued a Restricted Area Identity Card, known as red cards.

As of May 3, there were 169,815 active red cards in circulation, said Kinney. She stressed not all of those cards were in use at once, as some card-holders may be on leave, for example.

The transport committee has been reviewing aviation security. It heard last month from departmental officials who defended a decision to loosen regulations for pilots, despite criticism from aviation inspectors that budget cuts have increased the risk of a major aviation accident.

Jennifer Sullivan, a director at the firm that runs Pearson airport, chats with Transport Canada's Laureen Kinney and the RCMP's Joe Oliver after appearing at a transport committee meeting May 11, 2017. Photo by Carl Meyer

How to get a red card

The red-card system is managed by CATSA at airports, and overseen by bureaucrats at Transport Canada, which Kinney said number between 70 and 80 people.

Airports submit their applications for worker screening to Transport Canada, and the department goes to the RCMP and then CSIS for background checks. Sometimes Canada’s immigration department is also involved "depending on the background of the person," said Kinney.

All people who hold security clearances are “proactively” checked every day against a police database to make sure their names didn’t pop up overnight in police reports across the country, she said.

In addition to this daily check, the department does a “full re-validation” every five years, she added, and also carries out “random” checks through a “risk-based approach.”

Between January 2015 and December 2016, Kinney said “more than 1,100 clearances were refused or cancelled” at airports nationwide.

CSIS carries out a background check on individuals when Transport Canada requests one, said Rumig, or when they become aware of a problem with a pass-holder. If they come across an issue, they use a "variety of investigative tools” to pursue further, usually an interview, he said.

Canada’s spy agency handles its volume of screening requests adequately using "advanced technology,” said Rumig, which he called a "game changer" that allows CSIS to "vet information very quickly and efficiently.”

Meanwhile, the RCMP screens people applying for security clearance through its Law Enforcement Records Check process after the federal department sends a request, said Joe Oliver, assistant commissioner for technical operations at the RCMP.

If that search turns up problematic information, the RCMP carries out further inspection, said Oliver. The federal police agency and Transport Canada can share information more easily thanks to a 2009 memo, he said.

But Oliver said the RCMP is limited in what criminal intelligence it can disclose from the records check. The force often has to gather details from local police forces, which may not want to grant permission to use the information due to an ongoing investigation, he said.

He also stressed the force doesn’t make “recommendations” on whether passes should be revoked or suspended, as the federal department, through the minister, takes the ultimate decision. But he did say the RCMP provided “advice” on such matters to the department.

Neither does the RCMP monitor people at airports on an “ongoing basis,” said Oliver.

“We’re not a police state,” he said.

The screening process can be as short as “a few days," said Kinney, but admitted a “majority” would likely take “months” to process.

However Jennifer Sullivan, chair of the security committee and director of corporate safety and security at the company that operates Canada’s busiest airport, Toronto Pearson, said "we're seeing three to five months for a new applicant."

There are "certainly backlogs," said Kinney, and the department has been working on that, she said, including providing additional resources to help offset the backlog.

Marc Garneau, airline security, Transport Canada, airplanes
Transport Minister Marc Garneau on April 10, 2017. Garneau gave a speech in November promising to look at funding to Canada's crown corporation that oversees security screening at airports. Photo by Alex Tétreault

Airports lobby complains of funding gap for security screening

CATSA checks travellers when they go through Canadian airport security, and is also responsible for screening checked baggage and what’s known as “non-passengers,” like flight and cabin crews, baggage handlers and people who work at the airport, said Neil Parry, vice president of the crown corporation’s service delivery.

Red-card holders can get eye and fingerprint scans to validate their access to restricted areas, said Parry.

All checked baggage is brought to CATSA screening areas through airport belt systems and screened “100 per cent,” he said. Bags that are “flagged” may then be physically searched by officers. If a bag isn’t cleared, it’s pulled out of the system.

But Daniel-Robert Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council, the lobby group for over 100 airports, said funding for CATSA is “the single biggest operational challenge that airports face today."

He argued there was a gap of $110 million between the budget that was provided to the security-screening operation and what the government collects on its Air Travellers Security Charge that gets added to every flight fare.

He welcomed Garneau’s "Transportation 2030" speech in November, when the minister promised to look at CATSA “governance,” including whether CATSA funding should be “more responsive and sustainable” — but he also said he didn’t see what he was looking for in the spring budget.

Garneau made some "important commitments," said Gooch, but this year’s budget “did not give CATSA enough funds to reach the level of service that was provided last year.”

CATSA’s representative himself wouldn’t confirm the funding discrepancy. Parry said CATSA didn’t have “insight” into the traveller security charge because its funding comes from government appropriations.

Meanwhile, Transport Canada’s Kinney said the security fee is collected by the air carriers and then sent to the federal finance department, so any “variance” would have to be answered by the department. “I don’t have that information,” she said.

In terms of efficiencies, Kinney also pointed to CATSA Plus, a new pre-board screening line the government is testing that CATSA says will be “a more pleasant and seamless passage” through security.

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