Security Improved at 24 Sussex
Some things will have changed around the house by the time Prime Minister Jean Chrétien returns home to Ottawa on Nov. 19 from the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in New Zealand and his other travels in Asia. He will notice, for example, that security operations at 24 Sussex Drive, his official riverside residence, have become a little crisper in his absence. While the government will not get a look until later this week at an RCMP report about how a man armed with a knife ended up at the door of Chrétien's bedroom in the small hours of Sunday, Nov. 5, authorities already have tightened the security cordon around the Prime Minister. And Chrétien may well be forgiven for the hope that never again will he have to pick up an Inuit stone carving from his nightstand and prepare to defend himself against a potential assassin.
The break-in, only hours after the assassination in Tel Aviv of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Nov. 4, might make for a compelling TV drama if it had not been such a horribly close call. "It was good in a way" that the intruder had a knife, Chrétien said last week en route from Rabin's funeral to Australia. "If he had a gun ..." There was no need to finish the sentence. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, already smarting from the bad publicity surrounding its licensing deal in June with the Walt Disney Co., had clearly bungled one of its most important jobs - protecting the Prime Minister. Even the commissioner of the storied force, Phil Murray, found it difficult to come to the defence of officers who allowed a man to get onto the grounds of 24 Sussex at 2:23 a.m., wander around for almost 20 minutes, break into the house and then, once Aline Chrétien had raised the alarm at 3 a.m., take seven minutes to come to the rescue. "I, like other Canadians," said Murray, "am shocked and dismayed at the breach of security." Solicitor General Herb Gray, ever the master of understatement, told the Commons that the incident was "unacceptable." Underlining the gravity of the events, the charge was attempted murder and it was filed against 34-year-old André Dallaire of Montreal, a sometime night clerk in a convenience store, along with break-and-enter and other charges. Judge Jack Nadelle ordered a 30-day psychiatric examination.
Some of the facts surrounding the break-in became clear last week. Aline Chrétien woke up about 2:45 a.m. on Sunday morning after hearing a noise in the three-storey stone mansion that stands next to a cliff above the Ottawa River. She got up to investigate, and in the hallway outside the Chrétiens' bedroom came face-to-face with a man carrying a jackknife and putting a glove on one hand. He had entered the house by breaking a side-door window. She retreated to the bedroom, locked the door and woke her husband. He did not believe what she told him. "You're dreaming," he replied, as he later related to journalists what had happened. As Madame Chrétien locked a second door to the room, the Prime Minister, to defend himself, grabbed a 15-inch Inuit stone carving of a loon. If the man had broken into the room, "he would have had one big headache," Chrétien said. The Prime Minister has often praised his wife for her political acumen; last week it was time to thank her for saving his life. "I am lucky she was there," he told reporters. "And I am grateful."
Less clear was how the incident came about. Several key questions remained to be answered, and RCMP officials refused further explanations until they have finished their inquiry and passed the report on to Gray, likely this week. Gray has said he will make public as much as he can without jeopardizing security at 24 Sussex. Following interviews with security experts, several questions stand out:
1) Why did police surround the house once the alarm was raised instead of immediately entering the building and coming to the rescue of the Prime Minister and his wife?
2) Where were the three RCMP guards who are stationed at a gatehouse down the driveway from the house? Where were the senior officers who should have been in charge? As Chrétien himself suggested last week, did the incident literally catch someone napping?
3) Why was the alarm system in the house not working? If it was turned off, why, and if it was being fixed or upgraded, why did the RCMP fail to take other steps to make 24 Sussex as safe as most Canadians believed it was?
4) Finally, why was security so porous just hours after Rabin's assassination and less than a week after the Quebec referendum, when political tension was running high?
The RCMP did not have answers to those and other questions last week. Officials refused to say anything about how the incident happened, even as they announced at week's end that the four officers on duty at 24 Sussex had been suspended without pay and three supervisors had been reassigned to other duties.
But not all the blame should rest with the RCMP, security experts suggested. Some must be shouldered as well by Chrétien, who has a longtime dislike for intrusive security. "The Prime Minister didn't want close security," said John Thompson, a security expert with armed forces training who is president of the Mackenzie Institute in Toronto, a privately funded think-tank specializing in security and terrorism issues. "I know the RCMP would have liked someone in the house." Even after the scare, Chrétien apparently still wants the house to himself. "I want to have some private life," he said. Indeed, the Prime Minister has in the past taken in the occasional movie with his wife, with no obvious security screen, and has caused many anxious minutes for security officials with his habit of wading into crowds, leaving his bodyguards to scramble after him. "If I want to go get a coffee, I don't want to find some guy sitting in my kitchen," he declared. That is a choice that American presidents cannot make. The U.S. Secret Service is sworn to protect the president whether he likes it or not, and Thompson said that Canadians may have to decide whether their prime minister will be required to sacrifice more of his private life than he might like. Solicitor General Gray agreed. "We're dealing with the private residence of the prime minister," he said, "and one has to examine to what extent the Prime Minister is entitled to have some private life, at the same time recognizing the needs of security."
But security experts agreed that even though Chrétien may not like Mounties at his side, he does not need to become an easy target. "Something went drastically wrong," said one security source with RCMP experience. "It seems like everything fell apart here."
In fact, say experts, good security need not be intrusive, but should take the form of layers of protection around the potential target. At 24 Sussex, the first layer is to secure the grounds with cameras and alarms that can be set to ignore raccoons and other animals. According to a chronology released by the RCMP, the intruder was on the grounds of 24 Sussex for almost an hour, but from what police said later, it appears that no one noticed, even though he had appeared on surveillance cameras. The second layer should have been the house itself. The three-storey stone house has an alarm system, sources said, but it was not working and never signalled that someone had broken a side-door window. But if the alarm system was working, the RCMP clearly failed to take the basic step of checking to make sure that it was set properly to go off. If in fact it was not operating, said Alan Bell, manager of the corporate resource group of Toronto's Intercon Security, then the RCMP should have taken that into account and beefed up security in other areas, with more frequent patrols of the grounds. Bell suggests that the Chrétiens' bedroom should be a secure layer itself, with strong locks and reinforced doors.
But perhaps the most serious failing that night was what happened after the alarm was raised. RCMP officers surrounded the house and only then went to the aid of the Prime Minister and his wife. It was, said Bell and other security experts, the reaction expected of police officers, not bodyguards - first, make sure that an intruder cannot get away. In the seven minutes it took for the RCMP to finally come to the Chrétiens' aid, the assailant apparently just sat outside the bedroom. If he had been a trained and well-armed terrorist, the experts said, the story would have had a much darker ending. Rule 1 for a bodyguard is simple, said Bell: protect the target. But the officers on duty at 24 Sussex are not bodyguards; they are regular police officers with standard police training.
The man charged with attempting to take the life of the Prime Minister and his wife lived with his sister in suburban Montreal and was described by acquaintances as a strangely quiet man with an interest in history but no apparent political interests. "He was a bit weird, very reserved and very straight," said Jean-Pierre Hodgson, manager of the convenience store where Dallaire was working. "He could have been a monk, if he had a cassock." Four days before the Quebec referendum vote on Oct. 30, Dallaire walked away from his job in mid-shift, cleaned out the cash register and dropped out of sight. His sister received a letter from him on referendum day with an Ottawa postmark.
Canadians have so far been blessed in escaping the political violence so common in other lands. The only two politicians assassinated in the country's history have been D'Arcy McGee in 1868, and Pierre Laporte in 1970, during that year's October Crisis. Last week, Canadian luck continued, but perhaps barely. "We've had a wake-up call," said Bell. The luck may hold only if that call is heeded.
Maclean's November 20, 1995