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Analysis: 2010 Security Threat Assessment and Reality

In October of 2004, the Government of Canada created the Integrated Threat Asssessment Centre (ITAC) as part of the spy agency CSIS in order to "enable Canada to respond more effectively to existing and emerging threats to its national security." CSIS's website advises that such assessment of potential threats to Canada are now essential because of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and due to "the numerous and widespread terrorist attacks since then." Sharing of treat assessments between various agencies is considered part of ITAC's mandate.

ITAC's latest efforts, obtained by National Post reporter Stewart Bell under Access to Information legislation, focus on the alleged "threats" to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver and Whistler. These include, presumably in order of potential significance: Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda-inspired groups, domestic protest groups, and "lone wolves". The first two would seem obvious given Canada's ongoing war in Afghanistan, but it remains unclear if ITAC sees these threats arising because, as George Bush has put it, Al Qaeda "hates our rights and freedoms" or as consequences of Al Qaeda and related groups possibly hoping to bring the war back home to Canadians in full view of a world-wide Olympic audience. The third listed threat, domestic protest groups, seems an odd item to juxtapose next to jihadi terrorism and this inclusion likely tells us more about the mindset of ITAC –and hence the Canadian government's view of things – than about any real potential for harm to lives or property.

Finally, the last item, that is an individual with a real or imagined grievance to being able to carry out some hostile action during the Olympics is essentially unknowable and thus unavoidable: You can't screen everyone for every possible reason. Individuals bent on doing something during the Games are unlikely to come up on ITAC's radar until after a security breach.

CSIS had earlier released to Access to Information another threat assessment for 2010 that listed terrorist attacks, domestic protests, and crime as their big three. Crime now seems to be out, so we are left with only two threats: terrorism and protest. It's worthwhile examining each in turn in some detail because herein may lie the answers to why different levels of government plan to bring some 13,000 to 15,000 security personnel (not counting private security) to Vancouver-Whistler for the 2010 Games and spend upwards of a billion dollars in doing so.

First, what actually is terrorism? There are no universally agreed upon definitions, yet several characteristic features emerge in any list of the phenomenon, namely acts designed to increase the psychological impact of fear for some political goal. Actual violence does not have to accompany a terrorist act, although the threat of it may. Nor does terrorism need to target the innocent.

Consider two potential acts of terrorism in Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics: First, some group detonates a bomb on a bus before or during the Games or places one in a garbage container. People die and are injured and panic ensues.

Second, some group issues a statement threatening to do so. The first case would certainly create widespread fear and serve to disrupt the Games; the second would actually kill no one, damage no property, but might create much the same overall state of fear. Massive screening of people and places –hard to do in an Olympic environment dependent for success on massive numbers of participants, media, and spectators- would be itself disruptive.

The more effective screening is the more disruptive it will be while still being unable to prevent all attacks.

Even worse, against a incorporeal threat, "boots on the ground" security is utterly worthless. These conclusions are not likely to be unknown to those planning the 2010 security package, so why the complex staging and huge expense? The answer partially lies in the flipside of terrorism's basic rationale.

That is, terrorism aims to create fear and the authorities need to create the opposite, namely an impression amongst the public that the security folks are really in control. Thus, the more police and soldiers you see, the more times your bag is searched, the safer you will feel. The security forces just have to hope that nothing actually bad happens. As we've seen above, a happy outcome has less to do with planning and preparation than luck.

There is only one actual "threat" left: domestic protests. One has to wonder if the security apparatus really see in protests the capacity for violence or are merely reacting to the possibility because they have been told by those higher up the food chain to treat protests and protesters as threats. Or is the threat less one of disruption, not even violent disruption, than embarrassment?

Embarrassment for a worldwide exposure of unkept promises to the poor, or of unresolved treaties with 1st Nations? Embarrassment that the world might notice some of the most glaring disparities of wealth in the Western world right here in one of Canada's richest cities? What can thousands of police and soldiers do in the face of protests?

Answer: Not much that won't make the situation worse. Every attempt to break up demonstrations cascades into more massive disruption caused by the response itself; every tear gas canister fired chokes protesters and spectators alike; every police car deployed adds to the insane traffic congestion.

No, the 2010 plan has to be about something entirely different. Maybe that something is prevention. Prevention in this case could occur by simply removing the "threat" before it becomes a problem, that is might mean preemptive arrests using the machinery of anti-terrorism legislation. In turn, arrests are allowed by detention for those scooped up and parked somewhere out of sight.

Could the 10 planned military camps along the Sea to Sky Highway be the sites? After the Games are gone, the detained could be released without charge. Then it would be good luck suing the government for Charter violations in a post 9-11 security world where government and many if not most citizens would agree with the need to protect the Games from all threats, real and imagined..

Is preventative detention impossible to imagine in Canada? Not to citizens of German or Ukranian origin who went into camps during World War I, or to generations of Native kids shanghaied into Residential Schools, or to Japanese-Canadians in World War II, or to Doubkabour kids in the 1950s right here in BC. Our veneer of democracy and human rights is thinner than most of us might want to imagine, and just maybe we're about to have a new lesson during the Olympics about how human rights are tolerated only when they happen to be convenient.

Christopher A. Shaw, Ph.D is a Professor in the
Dept. of Ophthalmology at University of British Columbia and the author of Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games (New Society 2008). He is the founding member and leading spokesperson for the No Games 2010 Coalition and 2010 Watch.

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