Mark Kennedy, Ottawa (Postmedia News) – The RCMP is expecting international criticism in the wake of its decision to dramatically slash its air marshals program providing security on airplanes and it has already been warned by pilots that the move will jeopardize the safety of passengers from radical terrorists, Postmedia News has learned.
The program, established in 2002 after the 9/11 attacks, involves specially trained covert Mounties who blend in with regular passengers on selected domestic and international flights.
Known as “inflight security officers,” they carry semi-automatic handguns, are trained for fighting in closed quarters, and are seen as the last line of defence against suicidal hijackers or bombers.
The plainclothes air marshals are part of the Canadian Air Carrier Protective Program (CACPP), and news leaked out through the RCMP’s union last October that the program was about to be hit with a 25 per cent budget cut in the wake of a “strategic review” by the government’s Treasury Board.
Documents obtained by Postmedia News through the Access to Information Act reveal internal memos describing how the cuts will occur, how the Mounties are briefing Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, and how the police and cabinet ministers are receiving some dire warnings about the consequences of the cutbacks.
The Mounties’ briefing note to Toews explains that the air marshals program is seen as a “world leader” of its type and that it has been successful through a “combination of operation, intelligence and analysis activities.”
“International partners were made aware of the funding reduction to the Canadian Air Carrier Protective Program,” Toews was advised. “The RCMP anticipates a negative response from American and international partners.”
In late October, RCMP Commissioner William Elliott received a strongly worded letter from the Air Line Pilots Association (International), urging him to halt the cuts to the air marshals program.
The pilots wrote that since its inception, the program has proven to be one of Canada’s most effective deterrents in countering the threat posed by “radical terrorists.”
They added that the cuts are “difficult to comprehend” because global intelligence reports continue to indicate that aviation remains a primary target for terrorists.
“Because terrorists are intelligent, adaptive adversaries who are known to repeat their success and to be persistent in correcting their failures, the decision is even more puzzling,” says the letter, also sent to Toews and Transport Minister Chuck Strahl.
“It is our opinion that the decision to make these CACPP staffing reductions is not only highly inadvisable, but is, in fact, a serious mistake that significantly jeopardizes the security and safety of airline travellers in particular and public safety in general, not only in Canada, but in other countries as well.”
According to the documents obtained by Postmedia News, Greg Browning, the RCMP officer in charge of the program, informed fellow staff of the change through an email last September that acknowledged the cuts would have an effect on the “morale” of those within the program, which was being cut by $12.1 million as of April 1, 2011.
“I know that this has come as a shock and disappointment as we have all given heart and soul to build the finest IFSO (inflight security officers) program in the world and each of us holds a well founded pride in our accomplishments and in the work we do every day,” he wrote.
“Please know that the program remains viable and effective and we will continue our work at the same level of professionalism that has earned us a place at the top within the Air Marshal and IFSO world.”
On Monday, RCMP Sgt. Julie Gagnon said in an interview that the budget cuts will proceed, stressing that the cutbacks do not stem from the “performance” of the program, but simply out of a “requirement to identify funds as part of the strategic review process.”
“The CACPP remains operational but will reduce its presence while still gathering intelligence on possible threats and will continue to strategically place inflight security officers on flights at risk,” she said.
“The RCMP takes all threats to our nation seriously. The CACPP will continue to be the critical layer of defence in protecting airline travellers and the general public from airborne threats.”
Chris McCluskey, a spokesman for Toews, said Monday that the RCMP had advised the minister’s office the program “will continue to effectively counter possible threats” as it places officers on fights with an elevated risk
McCluskey also defended the strategic review process that led to the cuts by the RCMP.
“The government’s priority is that taxpayers’ money is spent in a way that achieves results for their hard-earned dollars.”
According to an internal RCMP report, in 2009 the program provided protection on 14,910 flights. The RCMP calculates that with an average of 125 passengers per flight, that means the air marshals protected more than 1.8 million passengers that year.
“This is not inclusive of Canadian citizens on the ground, critical infrastructure and symbolic sites.”
The RCMP said those statistics would be surpassed in 2010 and 2011 because of legal and regulatory changes that will “result in a significant growth in the scope of CACPP international operations.”
But in its briefing note to Toews, the RCMP said that “it is anticipated that implementing the Treasury Board decision will result in the overall reduction in program operations.”
The briefing note outlined recent incidents which show terrorists “continue to target passenger aircraft and have evolved tactics away from a 9/11 takeover strategy”: a “Liquid Bomb Plot” from the United Kingdom which targeted two Air Canada flights; the attempted on-board bombing on a U.S.-bound plane by the so-called underwear bomber on Christmas Day, 2009; and the “terror nexus” identified in a January 2010 Ethiopian Air crash.