01/06/2015 03:47 EST | Updated 03/08/2015 05:59 EDT

Security threatened by gaps in screening of air cargo imports, audit says

OTTAWA - Better oversight, training, and detection technology are needed to keep illicit drugs and other contraband from slipping into the country in air cargo, an internal audit says.

The Canada Border Services Agency audit says the findings are significant because commercial air cargo accounts for about one-quarter of all arriving shipments.

The audit team visited the high-volume airports in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal as well as three unidentified smaller ones in their study of the agency's air cargo examination program.

Regional border services officers scrutinize incoming goods, decide whether to allow them entry and take action if they discover violations.

The audit report, dated last July, was only recently made public.

Portions of the document — including details of some risks posed by deficiencies — were considered too sensitive to release.

However, the report does highlight one risk — that weaknesses mean "contraband and other unacceptable items could be brought into Canada" — possibly with the help of corrupt people working in airports.

Some program officials were not sure who to contact at headquarters when they had questions or concerns, the report says.

During regional site visits, the auditors found notes were being taken on air cargo examinations. But there was no national electronic system to record the results.

The report also expressed concerns about possible inconsistencies from region to region in training border officers.

In addition, the availability and usefulness of tools to help with examinations varied across the country.

The audit recommends the border agency strengthen oversight of commercial air cargo, ensure standardized delivery of training and "address gaps in detection technology."

The audit reveals that another, earlier internal review identified "gaps" related to training, technology and six other areas. As a result, a plan to address the problems was developed.

The border services agency did not make anyone available Tuesday for an interview.

However, the report spells out the border agency's plans for improvement, including:

— Stronger communication between headquarters and the regions;

— Improved quality of examination results recorded by field officers;

— Revised national training for officers;

— Purchase of new detection technology for the highest-risk air cargo locations by March of this year.

"It should be noted that the absence of detection technology does not prevent effective examinations as borders services officers are appropriately trained to conduct examinations without such technology," the management response says.

But the agency allows that "its presence improves the efficiency of examinations."

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