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Border officers relied on outdated intel to decide whether to search incoming vessels, audit warns

The risk assessments border officers have used for years to decide whether vessels entering Canadian waters should be searched have been based on outdated and inaccurate data, increasing the risk of high-risk goods and inadmissible people slipping into the country, a recently released audit says.

“Due to system limitations, the [Canada Border Services Agency] may not have a complete record of all individuals entering the country via marine ports,” says the audit, posted online last week.

The review examined how the CBSA’s national targeting centre identified people and goods bound for Canada that might have posed a threat between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2022.

According to the audit, the national targeting centre relies on risk assessments to determine if vessels that could be used for illegal activities, such as smuggling or illegal migration, need to be flagged for examination.

Daniel Anson, the director general of CBSA’s intelligence and investigations directorate, said high-risk cargo could include precursor chemicals used to make synthetic opioids and other illicit drugs.

“Precursor chemicals are obviously top of mind, given the sad and tragic death rates that we’re seeing,” he said in an interview.

Border officers posted to Canada’s ports are also on the lookout for potential Canadian Food Inspection Agency violations, like parasitic barnacles underneath a ship, he said.

The targeting centre is also meant to use its risk-assessment training to determine if crew members are admissible. 

Anson said sometimes crew members lack documentation or try to use fraudulent documents. Sometimes they’re inadmissible because they’re from countries under sanctions and in rare cases, he said, a crew member poses a national security concern.

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CBSA may fail to identify inadmissible goods: audit

But according to the audit, the indicators and intelligence officers relied on between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2022 to decide whether cargo and crew needed to be searched was outdated. Referrals were also hampered by “the prohibitive cost of examinations,” says the audit.

“The CBSA’s marine mode targeting methodology and processes rely on legacy systems and outdated procedures to risk-assess cargo, vessels and crew,” said the audit.

“This results in sustained operational inefficiencies, performance results that fail to meet target rates, and ultimately places the agency at increased risk of allowing inadmissible people and goods into Canada.”

Canada Border Services Agency officers remove waterlogged material from the sailboat Quesera at East River Marine in Hubbards, N.S., on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. Approximately 273 kilograms of suspected cocaine were found on the vessel and two men were arrested. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The audit warns that “high-risk shipments may be authorized to move, while lower-risk shipments may be referred for examination.”

“As a result, the CBSA may fail to identify inadmissible commercial goods,” it said.

The audit said data from cargo shipping companies on crew members is not received in a consistent format and must be manually entered, “which increases the risk that the agency may not identify high-risk individuals and vessels.”

The audit also looked at how CBSA intelligence, in addition to information gathered by domestic and foreign enforcement partners, is used to target suspect cargo and crew at ports.

Targeting officers told auditors they were concerned about intelligence arriving too late to be applicable, and about a lack of intelligence “on higher-level trends and threats.”

The audit concludes that CBSA management is “aware of the challenges that exist.”

“However, the audit has found little evidence demonstrating that coordinated leadership and prioritized actions have been taken to address and resolve them,” it said.

The audit makes four main recommendations. It says marine and cargo targeting practices should focus on the highest risk shipments and the CBSA should establish a process to update targeting risk indicators more regularly.

CBSA says it’s modernizing its systems post-audit 

Anson said the audit made it clear what the CBSA needs to do.

“The audit is diligent in saying, ‘You’re not perfect,'” he said. “And we’re focusing, we accept those and we’re trying to prioritize modernization of our systems.”

Anson said the CBSA is looking into adding more data analytics and training.

“People will always work to exploit gaps,” he said.

Rick Savage, First Nation vice-president for the Customs and Immigration Union, said over the years regional expertise has sometimes been overlooked by national headquarters. 

He was glad to see the audit recommend better integration of intelligence acquired by CBSA officers in the regions.

“They know the area. So they would know, for example, if an address the shipping container is going to is not really in a business area,” he said. 

“Somebody in Ontario, at the national headquarters in Ottawa, would not necessarily know by looking at an address that ‘Wait a second, that’s a residential area.'”

Calvin Chrustie, a former RCMP superintendent who now works for a private risk management firm, said he would have liked to see the audit go harder on the need for technology to monitor Canada’s marine domains, including the Arctic.

“More money and more resources won’t solve all national security issues but technology can support,” said Chrustie, a partner with the Critical Risk Team. 

“These tools should be considered by all Canadian security entities, including the military, intel [and] police, to ensure national and global interoperability with all partners. This is the only way to counter foreign threats in the marine domain and is an important tool to mitigate illicit trade in Canada.”

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