Government calls RCMP over leaked memo about Russian embassy security

OTTAWA – The federal government is asking police to investigate the leak of an internal memo that warns of a lack of security at Canada’s embassy in Moscow.

The Canadian Press reported on the weekend about an internal memo to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird that described the embassy compound as vulnerable to terrorist attack and the prying eyes of foreign spies.

“We take the release of this kind of information extremely seriously, and we are considering calling in the RCMP,” Diane Ablonczy, Canada’s minister of state of Foreign Affairs, said during question period Monday.

“We will not engage in public or partisan discussions that could place the arrangements we make for our men and women in the public service at risk, and we will continue to do what is right and needful in this situation.”

A spokesman for Baird later confirmed that officials had been asked to refer the matter to police.

The memo, to Baird from a senior bureaucrat, warned that Canada’s embassy in the Russian capital offers “almost no protection” against a terrorist attack.

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It details why diplomats won’t be moving to a more secure facility until January 2016 instead of last July as planned. The delay has added nearly $30 million to the cost of the project, since Foreign Affairs received approval in 2008 to move the embassy to a more suitable building.

A quarter of the increased cost – or $7.5 million – is for extra construction to keep unidentified “threats” from spying on Canadian diplomats in the new embassy.

The memo surfaced after the recent high-profile closures of Canada’s embassies in Iran and Syria, decisions that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Baird have said were made to keep Canadian diplomats out of harm’s way.

“This is about Conservative mismanagement, and it is putting Canadians at risk,” NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said during question period Monday.

“The question is, why is the government not doing more to protect our diplomats in Moscow?”

The Canadian embassy and ambassador’s residence have been housed in a series of connected buildings in Moscow that date back to 1898.

“The possibility of terrorist incidents in Russia is high and the existing site offers almost no protection against an attack. Moscow is an extremely hostile environment and the current site is highly vulnerable to counter-intelligence threats,” says the memo, from an associate deputy minister.

“These buildings have deteriorated beyond acceptable workplace standards. Compounded by age, numerous physical and structural deficiencies, and severe overcrowding, the chancery poses ongoing health, safety and security risks to Embassy staff and other user(s) of the facility, and impedes the effective delivery of mission programs.”

Hundreds of people have been killed in terrorist attacks in Moscow dating back to the mid-1990s. The two most recent – also cited in a Foreign Affairs warning to Canadian travellers – are the January 2011 blast at Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport that killed 30 and injured about 100; and the March 2010 rush-hour attacks on the Moscow subway system that killed 37 and injured 120.

The department will absorb the extra project cost, which will impose an added financial burden because the last federal budget called for $170 million to be shaved from Foreign Affairs’ $2.6-billion annual budget.

In February 2008, Treasury Board gave approval to Foreign Affairs to sign a new 20-year lease with the Russian government. Russia’s foreign ministry leases embassy space in the country from an inventory of properties under its control.

The decision to move was made following a 2007 audit by the department that found the embassy deficient.

A lease for a new building was signed in March 2008, contingent on Foreign Affairs coming back to Treasury Board with a revised submission on the final cost.

Canada signed the lease because the Russians offered a building “at sub-market rates” that would provide a “long-term solution.”

But there was a catch.

“The offer was time-sensitive and required the Canadian government to respond by March 1, 2008 or the property would have been offered to another organization,” the memo states.

The new building has since sat unused while the project cost jumped from $78.1 million to $107.3 million, in part because of $9.5 million of “increased rent costs while the building remains unoccupied.”

Dewar said the government needs to answer publicly for how it negotiated the new embassy with the Russian government.

“Is this the standard for all other countries, or are we just seen as suckers, or the ones who will pay a king’s ransom for an empty building?”