U.S Secret Service and Anti Terror Agents in Vancouver

Posted by admin on Feb 18th, 2007

The United States consulate occupies three-and-half floors of a West Pender highrise. More than 60 employees work out of the downtown Vancouver office. They include 12 agents from various branches of U.S. law enforcement such as Homeland Security, the FBI, Secret Service, DEA and ATF.

by Mike Howell-staff writer,Vancouver Courier 

One by one, a handful of men in suits enter a boardroom on the 19th floor of the U.S. consulate in downtown Vancouver.  They gather with members of the RCMP and the Vancouver Police Department, who are in uniform. Not until the men introduce themselves does it become clear who they are.  “Gerry Downes, FBI, Mike Flanagan, Homeland Security, Scott Collins, Diplomatic Security…” And on it goes.

Members of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the U.S. Secret Service are also in the room. At least another six agents are absent.

Despite the police presence on this recent Friday morning, the meeting isn’t serious business.

Canadian police are there to acknowledge the working relationships with U.S. authorities on criminal investigations. They present a framed print and plaque to U.S. consul general Lewis Lukens in recognition of the cross-border ties.

“The cooperation and friendship between the two sides of the border is just something I’ve never experienced anywhere else in the world before,” Lukens tells the officers. “It’s very unique to North America and it’s great to see it working so well all the time.”

Quietly and deliberately, over the past decade, the U.S. consulate on West Pender Street has built its own police service. Dubbed the Law Enforcement Working Group, or LEWG, it now has 12 agents.

More are expected as Vancouver and Whistler prepare to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Vancouver and Toronto are the only cities in Canada with U.S. law enforcement hubs, although one is in the works for Montreal. Senior U.S. agents in Ottawa oversee the work of the hubs. But the total number of U.S. agents in Canada remains classified.

The RCMP, by way of comparison, says it has four RCMP liaison officers based in the whole of the U.S. Two are in Washington, D.C. and two in Miami, Fla. Sgt. Sylvie Tremblay of the RCMP’s headquarters in Ottawa says “it’s our current allotment, that’s how it goes.”

So why 12 U.S. agents in Vancouver?

The U.S. government says they help combat the increase in cross-border crimes such as drug and gun smuggling, fraud rings, child pornography and terrorism. The DEA, ATF and Secret Service, for example, have also educated government bureaucrats, businesses and local police on tackling the crystal methamphetamine problem, tracing guns and counterfeit money.

They don’t have powers of arrest and are prohibited from carrying guns.

But civil liberty and sovereignty watchdog groups are concerned about the encroachment of U.S. agents working in Canada. They say it’s unclear how the agents’ work is monitored and whether information is being gathered on Canadians.

There’s also the mystery of what Texas state troopers were doing in the spring of 2004 stopping an off-duty Vancouver police constable in the Fraser Valley. The troopers were said to be in the company of the RCMP to detect motorists under the influence of marijuana.

Then there’s the case that B.C. Supreme Court Justice Janice Dillon called “shocking to the Canadian conscience.” That was in August 1999 when the DEA allowed an informant to cross the border to White Rock without proper immigration status as part of a cocaine sting operation.

It occurred without the knowledge or consent of the RCMP and led Dillon to stay drug charges against a Lower Mainland man. The rebuke, however, has obviously not swayed the U.S. government from operating on Canadian soil.

The White Rock case did not fall under Lukens’ watch.

He’s only been here 18 months as the U.S. senior diplomat in B.C. and the Yukon.

From his expansive 22nd floor office, which has an enviable view of Stanley Park and the North Shore, he oversees the work of the 12 agents and 50 other employees at the consulate.

Two framed photographs propped on a cabinet leave no doubt who the 43-year-old Princeton University grad works for. One captures him in the White House in the fall of 2001 with U.S. President George W. Bush and Bush’s father. The other, also taken in the Oval Office, is signed by his former boss, Condoleeza Rice.

“Lew,” she writes, “your professionalism and calm are legendary. This photo shows exactly that. Thanks for all you do.”

Lukens will not discuss his political affiliation publicly, but points out he served under Bush senior’s administration and that of former U.S. president Bill Clinton. The son of a U.S. diplomat, he is a self-described foreign service brat and was executive secretary at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad before coming to Vancouver.

“Canada is a great place to serve because of the importance of the issues,” he says from his office. “I mean every issue that we deal with here touches on American and Canadian lives.”

But Lukens notes the law enforcement hub and the agents’ work is only a small part of the consulate’s function. The consular section is the biggest department, issuing up to 45,000 visas a year to landed immigrants who wish to travel to the United States.

The consular section is also responsible for “anything that touches on the lives” of American citizens in B.C. and Yukon. That includes issuing passports, working with local American families during a death and visiting U.S. prisoners in B.C. jails at least once a year. Lukens estimates there are 25,000 to 50,000 Americans living in B.C.

A management department and public affairs section round out the consulate, which occupies three-and-a-half floors in a highrise on West Pender Street.

Lukens’ job involves meeting with rotary clubs, chambers of commerce and reporting to U.S. ambassador David Wilkins in Ottawa on B.C. issues such as softwood lumber, national politics, business trends, crime and border security.

Although the law enforcement agents are accountable to their superiors in Ottawa and the United States, Lukens meets twice a week with them to receive updates on investigations.

“By having all these guys on the same floor and sharing information-not just with their Canadian counterparts, but amongst themselves-it really makes for a more effective operation.”

The roots of the law enforcement hub in Vancouver were planted in 1996 with the establishment of ATF and Secret Service agents. Homeland Security, Diplomatic Security, the DEA and FBI joined in the past six years.

According to Lukens, the ATF spends most of its time preventing the smuggling of guns and weapons across the border. The Secret Service investigates counterfeit money, fraud, credit card crimes and provides protection when a current or former U.S. president comes to town. Bill Clinton spoke in Vancouver last year.

Homeland Security works immigration and customs infractions. Diplomatic Security investigates passport and visa fraud, and provides security for the consulate, the consul general and employees.

The DEA’s job is self-evident. Its role here got a lot of media play in 2005 when it requested Vancouver police arrest B.C.’s self-proclaimed Prince of Pot, Marc Emery, and two of his associates for selling marijuana seeds over the Internet to Americans.

Emery told the Courier in August 2005 that he believed the DEA investigated him after he and supporters taunted American drug czar John Walters during a speech he gave at the Vancouver Board of Trade.

“I would say heckling John Walters while he’s surrounded by 75 Secret Service men and humiliating him in his public debut in Canada [might have incited them],” Emery said at the time. “All the investigations started right after that.”

One week after Emery’s arrest, the DEA and Canadian law enforcement agencies revealed they had discovered a tunnel running from Langley to Washington State. It was being used to smuggle drugs but had no connection to Emery, the agencies said.

The FBI’s work here hasn’t garnered the same media attention. Gerard Downes is the only FBI agent, or legal attach‚, working at the consulate. There is talk another agent could be added leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics. But with more than 50 FBI legal attach‚s around the world, including the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, Vancouver will have to wait.

“Obviously, [Afghanistan and Iraq] are going to get the priority and the manpower over the Canadian request,” Downes told the Courier.

Downes said the “vast majority” of his job is focused on terrorism, noting it’s the new priority of the FBI. He wouldn’t reveal any cases related to terrorism in Vancouver but said he works regularly with the VPD’s counter-terrorism squad and the RCMP’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Team.

“If we have information that there is a terrorist here, we immediately notify the Canadians. If they have information that we have a terrorist in the United States, they immediately notify us.”

Downes is the point man for the VPD and RCMP in B.C. and can access FBI-related information around the world. He worked with the VPD and RCMP last summer to help nab two U.S. soldiers in Kelowna and Chilliwack who allegedly robbed a bank in Tacoma, Wash.

“The world is becoming a smaller place, so crime is becoming global and we have to be able to talk to each other and exchange information on these bad guys before they do something. The more information we can exchange, the more crimes we are going to prevent.”

Downes wasn’t in Vancouver when convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam was building bombs in his room at the 2400 Motel on Kingsway. U.S. customs officials captured Ressam in December 1999 after a routine check in Port Angeles, Wash. Ressam was on his way to detonate a bomb at the Los Angeles airport.

After the arrest, some U.S. politicians were quick to label Canada a haven for terrorists. One U.S. politician talked of building a wall along the border.

Downes wouldn’t enter into that debate, deferring to politicians.

For the record, Lukens says the U.S. government doesn’t believe Canada is “soft on terrorism.” Nor does he give any weight to the argument the U.S. increased the number of agents in Canada because Canadian police aren’t doing their jobs.

“We don’t feel that way. We have 435 congressmen and 100 senators and they all have their own opinions and they all have their own constituencies, so far be it for any of us to try to tell them what to say or to stop them from saying what they think. But there are some congressmen and senators who are very vocal on immigration issues.”

Lukens describes the relationship between Canada and U.S. as good. The election of the Conservatives one year ago has helped, he adds.

“Not necessarily because of the political parties involved-but just because of a change of government. There was fresh blood and a renewed emphasis on the relationship and I think we’ve seen some progress on a lot of issues.”

Two years ago, Canada, the U.S. and Mexico signed the Security and Prosperity Partnership. The agreement aims to secure North America from external threats, prevent and respond to threats in North America and streamline the movement of “low-risk traffic” across borders.

At the heart of the security mandate is a strategy to combat terrorism, organized crime, illegal drugs, migrant and contraband smuggling and trafficking. The FBI’s director, Robert Mueller, is clear on how that can be achieved.

Law enforcement agencies around the world must integrate, Mueller notes in a write-up on the FBI’s website.

“That means having our agents working directly with their counterparts overseas [which includes Canada] on cases of mutual interest-not only to solve crimes that have been committed, but to prevent crimes and acts of terror by sharing information in real time.”

That type of integration worries Carleen Pickard, regional organizer for the Council of Canadians, the country’s largest citizens’ organization. Pickard says Canadians should be concerned about the influence Americans could impose on Canadian police as the three-country pact is implemented.

“We definitely need to be looking seriously at the kind of operation that is being set up in Vancouver and determine what is the larger plan that is rolling out,” she says, noting that 12 U.S. agents in Vancouver seems like a lot. “People in British Columbia need to be holding our leaders accountable and asking, ‘Why are these agents here, and why have you let them come in?'”

Though Pickard is aware the U.S. Patriotic Act doesn’t apply in Canada, she says Canadians must be mindful that it is a tool U.S. law enforcement agencies use to pry into Americans’ lives. Canadians have to ensure such a mindset doesn’t trickle into the conscience of the Canadian government and police services.

“Canada just shouldn’t be working so closely with a country that has such a questionable human rights’ record. And that’s something as Canadians we really value, and once the rest of the world starts to see us slipping in cozy with the United States, then we really lose a lot of our credibility and moral authority.”

Jason Gratl, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties’ Association, said the most brazen case of Canadian police stepping over the line with their U.S. counterparts occurred in the spring of 2004 when an off duty Vancouver police officer was stopped by Texas state troopers near Hope.

Const. David Laing was driving to Princeton with his two-year-old boy to look at property. He was pulled over twice by Texas state troopers who were working with RCMP to detect motorists under the influence of marijuana.

In the first stop, Laing refused to let the trooper and RCMP officer search his vehicle. He was ticketed for having two different addresses for his insurance and registration.

In the second stop, another U.S.-RCMP team searched Laing’s vehicle and his son. The police didn’t find any drugs and despite accusing Laing of being impaired, they let him go.

“They still knowingly had a Texas trooper escort me to the front of the vehicle,” he told CBC radio in January 2005. “I’m a constable with the Vancouver police. He’s a Texas trooper and yet I’m under his control.”

Adds Laing: “We have different freedoms than they have. You don’t want to mesh too much. You don’t want your police meshing to the point where we start taking on other police jurisdictions’ policies.”

Laing won an out-of-court settlement from the RCMP after he threatened to sue for unlawful detention. Details of the settlement were not made public. The RCMP defended the search saying Laing looked suspicious because his eyelashes were fluttering and his eyes were flashing.

It’s unclear whether the Texas state troopers were penalized. It’s an issue that rankles Gratl, who says there is no civilian oversight for foreign law enforcement agents working in Canada. Canadian police are overseen by various public complaint commissions.

“It appears that U.S. law enforcement agents are sometimes more aggressive, more assertive and might in the course of what is normally a joint investigation, begin to take control or direct investigations on Canadian soil. Although that tendency might be a subject of concern, it’s difficult to see how those U.S. agents might be held to account for their actions.”

Such flagrant disregard for Canadian sovereignty occurred in the summer of 1999 when the DEA conducted a reverse cocaine sting to nab a Canadian named Brent Anthony Licht. The DEA used two informants in California in an attempt to lure Licht into buying large amounts of cocaine.

The RCMP consented to an informant and DEA agents traveled to the Lower Mainland for five days in August 1999 to conduct a meeting with Canadian suspects. The RCMP drafted an operational plan, called E-Planet, to assist the DEA. The informant was also granted a “ministerial permit.”

Two DEA agents and the RCMP conducted surveillance of a meeting in Richmond between the informant and “two targets known as Jack and Dean.” Information revealed that Dean wanted to complete a series of one-kilogram buys of cocaine before introducing the informant to other buyers in Canada that could afford 100 to 150 kilograms of cocaine.

The DEA requested the investigation continue, but the RCMP said they had no interest in continuing negotiations in those small amounts of cocaine. The RCMP escorted the informant and DEA agents to the airport and put them on a flight to California.

Two weeks later, one of the informants crossed the border to White Rock, where he met with Licht, also known as “the main guy.” The informant crossed the border without telling the RCMP. Licht traveled to California a few days later to conduct further negotiations for the cocaine.

The RCMP wasn’t contacted again until suspects were arrested in the United States and the arrest of Licht was sought in Canada. The RCMP didn’t learn of the White Rock meeting until it was indicated in a U.S. affidavit in support of the arrest of Licht and his extradition.

“The illegal conduct of the United States DEA is so shocking here and so detrimental to international cooperative agreements to assist in criminal matters that I would be inclined to order a stay [of the charges against Licht] on that basis alone,” wrote B.C. Supreme Court Justice Janice Dillon in her judgment.

Dillon concluded that the conduct of the “United States agents in this case is so egregious as to constitute an abuse of process to disentitle the requesting state from the assistance of the court.” A stay was entered, Licht went free and there is no indication the DEA was penalized.

That White Rock case is, so far, an anomaly.

Neither RCMP headquarters in B.C. nor the VPD know of any infractions or complaints related to U.S. agents working here.

If one surfaced, RCMP Cpl. Pierre Lemaitre of the RCMP and VPD Const. Howard Chow say their departments would investigate and notify the appropriate U.S. authority.

“We would want to know about it,” Lemaitre says. “If we are told that there has been a suspected violation of sovereignty or whatever, we would go through the diplomatic channels and address it immediately.”

That said, Vancouver Police Chief Jamie Graham says the working relationship between the two countries’ law enforcement agencies continues to work well. Having the U.S. agents in the city provides key contacts for the Vancouver police and RCMP to access information on cross-border investigations, he says, noting he met with FBI agent Downes last month.

“There’s no downside to this,” Graham says.

Mayor Sam Sullivan, also chair of the police board, agrees. As the threat of terrorism escalates in North America, Sullivan says it only makes sense to work closely with U.S. law enforcement.

“It’s important that Americans feel that Canada is not a place that is unsafe.”

That type of comment will undoubtedly be repeated as Vancouver and Whistler prepare for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The U.S. is expected to have a large team at the Games and attract thousands of fans.

The team will have its own security and have what Lukens calls “a pretty big footprint on the ground.” How big of a footprint and what the RCMP’s role will be at the Games was discussed at Lukens’ house in Shaughnessy a few months ago.

The RCMP’s former head in B.C., Bev Busson, was there. So were members of the U.S. Law Enforcement Working Group. Lukens says the meeting typified the “very frank exchange of ideas” between law enforcement agencies.

“Canadians must not think that their privacy is somehow being violated by the sharing of information because it’s not. The Canadian authorities have their requirements and their regulations under the Privacy Act, and they abide by that. But that doesn’t prevent teams from sharing information and working together.”

Despite concerns raised by the Council of Canadians and B.C. Civil Liberties’ Association, Lukens points out he has never heard from either group.

“None of these groups has ever written me, or called me or contacted me or asked for a meeting with me,” he says. “If they have had concerns since I’ve been here, I would have hoped that they would have contacted me and they’re certainly welcome to contact me at anytime.”

As for the number of U.S. agents working in Vancouver, Lukens has this to say:

“Maybe people just aren’t aware of it. People that I know who are aware of it, don’t have a problem with it. I think people understand we’re not running operations here, we’re not surveilling Canadians or arresting Canadians, we’re just working on cross-border crime issues.”

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