Border services staff punished for leaking memo about disguised migrant

Posted by admin on Apr 1st, 2011

By Douglas Quan, Postmedia News, Apr. 1 2011

VANCOUVER — A Canada Border Services Agency investigation late last year found that 19 employees violated internal policies by distributing “confidential and sensitive” information about the bizarre case of a young Asian man who impersonated an elderly Caucasian on a flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver, documents obtained under access to information show. Under questioning, many employees admitted emailing the protected “intelligence alert” to friends and family because of the “amazing” and “extraordinary” nature of the case.

But the CBSA investigation could not determine how the memo, which was also shared with other government and law enforcement agencies, ended up in the hands of CNN — a leak later described by one senior official as an “embarrassment” for the agency.

Sabrina Mehes, a CBSA spokeswoman, told Postmedia News Friday that the investigation resulted in disciplinary action against most of the employees, ranging from written reprimands to suspensions.

“The CBSA considers security breaches relating to protected and classified information to be serious,” she said in an email. “Any behaviour that falls short of this expectation is addressed immediately.”

The Nov. 1 intelligence alert — titled “Unbelievable Case of Concealment” — stated that, three days earlier, an Asian man in his 20s had boarded an Air Canada flight in Hong Kong wearing an elaborate disguise that included a silicone mask, brown leather cap, glasses and brown cardigan.

At the beginning of the flight, someone noticed that he had young-looking hands, according to the memo. Hours later, the man emerged from the washroom without the disguise. After the plane landed, authorities detained the man, who made a claim for refugee protection.

The alert was written by CBSA’s Pacific Region Intelligence Division and sent to hundreds of personnel within CBSA and its partner agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Three days later, CNN broadcast a story about the case and posted on its website a link to the memo, which included photographs of the Asian man in and out of the disguise. That prompted an immediate internal CBSA investigation to try to determine the source of the leak.

“The fact that the alert found its way to a CNN contact is disturbing and caused embarrassment to the agency and our transportation industry stakeholders,” wrote Pierre Sabourin, CBSA’s vice president of operations, in a briefing note.

Internal investigators retrieved all outgoing emails containing the alert and found that 19 CBSA employees — including intelligence officers, border services officers, superintendents, and a dog handler — had forwarded the memo to their personal email accounts or to family and friends.

About 60 per cent of the recovered emails had been deleted or “double deleted” from the system.

Under questioning from their managers, most employees “claim to have sent out the email to family members or friends in order to show them the lengths people will go to enter Canada and because they were intrigued by the ingenious method of concealment,” wrote Franca Passannante, a senior investigator in CBSA’s professional standards section.

“None admitted forwarding the alert to media. Most admitted to realizing the error they made.”

Investigators scoured the employees’ email accounts using key search words, such as “CNN” and “press” and checked the backgrounds of the email recipients to see if any of them worked for the media but ultimately found no evidence that could link any of the employees to the leak to CNN.

Still, the employees were found in violation of several CBSA security policies, including “disclosing sensitive information without authorization.”

Records show that senior officials immediately drafted new guidelines to remind employees about the proper labelling and handling of sensitive documents, including intelligence bulletins and alerts.

Last month, the Immigration and Refugee Board released the young Asian man from detention after a family friend in Toronto agreed to post a $5,000 bond.

The board heard that his family back in China had paid smugglers $30,000 to co-ordinate the trip.

Authorities in Hong Kong announced earlier this year that they had arrested eight people, including a number of ground staff at the Hong Kong airport, in connection with the operation and other smuggling cases.

They were suspected of being involved in the swapping or selling of airline boarding passes, authorities said.

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