Security experts say terror-attack warnings before Parliament Hill shootings too vague

Mounties received at least three terror-attack warnings before the Oct. 22, 2014, shootings on Parliament Hill, but experts say the notices did not have the detail needed to take specific precautions other than increased vigilance, experts tell CBC News.

RCMP notices in days before Oct. 22 lacked much detail

An Ottawa police officer runs with his weapon drawn in Ottawa on Oct. 22, 2014. Security experts say warnings about terror attacks just before the incident lacked detail. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A security expert and former RCMP officer say the trio of terror-attack warnings the Mounties received in the days preceding last year's deadly shootings on Parliament Hill were likely too general for the force to take specific actions.

CBC News has reported that the RCMP disseminated separate terror warnings to officers on Oct. 17-18 and Oct. 21, each citing potential attacks on Canadians in uniform. On Oct. 22, a lone gunman did just that, killing a soldier at the National War Memorial and injuring a guard inside Centre Block on Parliament Hill.

"If the threat is general, then the level of awareness is heightened, but it's hard to go beyond heightened state of awareness," said Pierre-Yves Borduas, a retired RCMP deputy commissioner. "It's always easy to second-guess after the attack."

Wesley Wark, a security expert and academic at the University of Ottawa, said frequent generic warnings can even have an unintended effect. "Warnings that contained no 'actionable' intelligence … may have been frequent enough to induce, at least in part, a cry wolf phenomenon," he said.

A 1,000-page RCMP dossier obtained under the Access to Information Act also shows that so-called "enhanced patrols," ordered in the wake of two minor security incidents in Ottawa, were ended shortly before the Oct. 22 attacks.

The file also shows that the RCMP unit whose duties include Parliament Hill security was chronically short-staffed in the fall of last year, by at least 29 positions, because of cuts announced in the Harper government's 2012 budget.

RCMP funding cut

The RCMP's government-provided funds in 2013-14 had fallen by about $234 million from the year before, to $2.7 billion, and staffing pressures were felt across Canada, including in the security team that's responsible for Parliament Hill, 24 Sussex Drive, Rideau Hall and embassies and other diplomatic missions in the capital.

"RCMP under-manning … was endemic in this period and spread well beyond the Hill detail," said Wark.

Senator Vern White was Ottawa's police chief from May 2007 to February 2012. He says despite improvements, security on Parliament Hill is not yet sufficient.
But RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Valerie Thibodeau said no posts or patrols for the parliamentary precinct were unstaffed at the time of the Oct. 22 attacks. The force had been drawing on a reserve force of retired Mounties to help fill in any gaps over the previous weeks and months.

Since the Oct. 22 tragedy, policing in the parliamentary precinct has radically changed, with closer co-ordination between the Mounties with the two security forces protecting the Senate and House of Commons inside Centre Block, including compatible radio systems and more officers. The new unified service was created June 23 this year.

But Senator Vern White, a former RCMP officer and once chief of the Ottawa city police, said he's still concerned about security on the Hill, despite improvements.

"I still think we have a long way to go," he said in an interview. "I'm still concerned about the access — unfettered access to the Hill, even on foot," he said.

"You have to go through more of a security protocol going in to watch the [Ottawa] Senators play hockey than you do to walk up onto Parliament Hill."