OTTAWA - A blue-ribbon panel has found a gaping hole in the security vetting of companies that do work for the federal government.
Many departments screen their contract workers, but fail to check out the companies those individuals work for - creating a potential conduit for secrets to leak out.
"There is a high risk in providing classified information and assets to an individual in the private sector, without first knowing to whom that individual reports," says an internal government document.
"Left unchecked, company officials could exert undue pressure on their employees to reveal sensitive information because of their position of authority or power."
Only Public Works, the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) routinely check the bona fides of companies that have been awarded classified government work, in addition to screening the employees who work for these companies.
An estimated 1,800 classified contracts issued each year by some two dozen other departments do not include security vetting of the companies that win the bids.
The finding is from the Task Force on the Security Screening of Individuals, a group of senior civil servants struck two years ago to modernize Ottawa's balkanized screening of public servants and contractors.
A draft report from the task force, heavily censored, was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
Private industry has long complained that the current system wastes time and money, as a contractor cleared by the RCMP for work in one department must jump through all the security hoops again when seeking work in another department.
"We have employees working at nuclear power plants that may then be required to work at, say, Toronto airport - and they can't," Bill Ferreira, spokesman for the Canadian Construction Association, said in an interview.
"There's a cost because you have to get them recertified. ... It makes absolutely no sense."
Ferreira's group and others want security screening procedures to be more centralized, and the certification made portable.
"The current situation relating to timeliness of screenings and clearances is worsening, and ... vested interests may be slowing progress," a group of eight industry associations warned Ottawa last year.
They said the unwieldy system could even delay stimulus spending.
In examining the issue, the panel found the existing system is not only inefficient but has a "double standard" for company vetting that creates a security gap.
"There is no central repository of security screenings for industrial security workers, which leads to duplication of effort and extra costs for the Government of Canada and industry," says the 113-page report.
The panel calls for the "establishment of government-wide criteria as to when and how companies should be screened, as opposed to individuals.
"It does not make sense that (Public Works) is the only department in government imposing company screenings in advance of screening contractor personnel."
Almost all of the other 24 recommendations are blacked out in the year-old document.
But a published report, based on another internal document, suggested last year that credit checks and fingerprinting of public servants and some contractors could become mandatory, in addition to the existing criminal record check.
The work of the task force has been delayed, partly because its recommendations are undergoing legal review to ensure they comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and with federal privacy laws.
A spokesman for Public Works said only that the findings are still being reviewed.
"The work of the task force is currently under consideration with government officials," Pierre-Alain Bujold said in an email.
"To date, no final recommendations have been made to government, and as such, no decisions have been made."
The task force report found there were between 103,000 and 173,000 contractor security screenings in 2006, and that the workload is expected to increase by about five per cent annually.
The vast majority of the screenings are carried out for Public Works, with about 17 per cent conducted for other departments and agencies. Canada Post, the Canada Revenue Agency and Health Canada are the top three.