A small article in several newspapers this month carried an item noting that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade had solicited bids for threat assessments in 174 countries. The assessments would canvass possible threats to Canada’s missions abroad under a variety of categories, including crime, terrorism and natural disasters. The successful bidder stands to earn up to $5 million for telling Canada’s foreign ministry what it should already know.

Canada has about 170 missions abroad, lumped under several categories: embassies, consulates-general, consulates, and trade offices. Some are large, like Washington and London. Some are small, like Riga, Montevideo and Bandar Seri Begawan. But their main function, whatever their size, is to act as the eyes and ears of the Government of Canada in other countries. They also serve abroad as the network of consular missions to ensure that Canadians can receive help when they run into trouble. For these and other reasons, they are expected to know something about the countries in which they are located, including precisely the types of issues on which the Canadian government is now soliciting the views of private international security firms.

It’s somewhat strange to be asking for security assessments in places where no answers are really needed. Do we need lengthy documents on Andorra, Bahamas, Fiji and Kiribati, even if there were Canadian missions in those countries (which there are not)? If we do, to whom do I send my bid, and can I travel first class? And few of Canada’s posts are located in exceptionally dangerous places (unlike the situation of the U.S., which has representation in some difficult locations). In those few dangerous places, like Kabul or Islamabad, Canada has security teams in place, who, one suspects, knows the dangers they face every day.

So this request for bids makes no sense in two respects: either we don’t need an assessment at all because the location poses a minimal threat, or we have teams of security experts on site for whom this document will provide no value-added. As for that mid-range of countries that have serious problems making headlines from time to time (like Guatemala, Cote d’Ivoire or Syria), there are people in DFAIT whose precise job is security. Let them draft assessments for those few situations for which there might be a demand.

Asking an American or British firm to do these assessments (which is implicit in the bid’s requirements) is doubly troubling. Simply put, when gangs are attacking local embassies in far-flung cities, they rarely head for the Canadian embassy (for reasons which any DFAIT rookie can gladly rehearse with the winning bidder). Thus, the security measures and procedures that Canada has traditionally put into place for its missions abroad pale in comparison with the “Fortress America” approach of the U.S., which has some roots in security realities. Canada shouldn’t be headed down that road. This series of assessments may well try to push us in those expensive and unnecessary directions.

This is not to argue that Canadian missions do not face security challenges; of course they do.  Bad things have happened to Canadian missions in the past for a variety of reasons, some of them beyond anticipation (like Carlos the Jackal’s attack on an OPEC office in Vienna, which ensnared the Canadian Embassy a floor above). This is why foreign ministries have security units. But these security problems are best analyzed by professionals who live the realities of those countries every day, not by others not directly involved or those for whom conditions may be very different. These assessments will add nothing to the arsenal we already have for protecting our people abroad.

Over the years, DFAIT has been the department in the Canadian government that produces this kind of assessment when needed. It draws on others with expertise and information, including CSIS, RCMP, DND, ITAC and the PCO. It uses highly-classified information from allies and from missions abroad. It compares notes with the UN and other international agencies in the same business. It draws on a wide range of databases and other sources as diverse as Oxford Analytica, The Economist Intelligence Unit and the statistical engines of UN agencies. On occasion, it even draws on the private sector when security companies have established their value in certain situations. In virtually every capital city, Canadian missions know security analysts who are well plugged into the many complexities of the local scene. This is where the real security work is done – not by soliciting a mind-numbing quantity of lengthy reports that few people will ever bother to read.

The Globe and Mail’s report on this item attracted a lot of comments, more than one would expect for an item this small. The bottom line seemed to be that this contract was a waste of up to $5 million of the Canadian taxpayers’ money. But it’s more than that. There’s a bigger message here, if not for Canadians then for lots of others, including other foreign ministries.  This request for bids is a public advertisement by whoever dreamt up and approved this idea that DFAIT is no longer up to the challenge of performing its most basic functions in support of Canada’s foreign service. And that’s pretty sad.

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