Massive cost of Nuttall & Korody sting raises serious questions about counter-terrorism funding

Image description: John Nuttall, with long stringy hair and unkempt beard, sits in the passenger seat of a car, his head turning towards his left. In the back seat is Amanda Korody, wearing a black headscarf and smoking a cigarette while gesturing emphatically with her left hand. (Image credit: RCMP surveillance)

Image description: John Nuttall, with long stringy hair and unkempt beard, sits in the passenger seat of a car, his head turning towards his left. In the back seat is Amanda Korody, wearing a black headscarf and smoking a cigarette while gesturing emphatically with her left hand. (Image credit: RCMP surveillance)

Back when The Alfalfafield was a brand-new little baby blog, my very first serious post focussed on a Toronto Star investigative report into the alleged underfunding of the RCMP.

The article relied almost entirely on internal RCMP documents asking the government for more money. The documents were provided to the Star by the Liberal Party’s then-finance critic Ralph Goodale, who got in a few good kicks at the Harper Conservatives in the piece. The Star attempted to make the case that the RCMP, faced with limited funds, was being forced to choose between pursuing dangerous terrorists and going after more conventional criminals.

At the time, I called bullshit, pointing to the ongoing trial of the so-called Canada Day bombers, John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, as evidence that the funds allocated by the Mounties for combatting terrorism were being poorly spent. Even then, it was clear that the pair of incompetent indigents couldn’t have orchestrated a bomb plot on their own if their very lives had depended on it, and that it was only the intervention of two hundred and forty RCMP officers that made the pressure-cooker plot possible.

Undercover Mounties steered Nuttall and Korody away from impossibly far-fetched schemes, pushed the idea of pressure cookers and a Canada Day detonation date, brought them to a Kelowna hotel for a weekend to teach them how to make C-4 plastic explosive, bought them groceries and cigarettes so they would be able to afford bomb-making materials on their meagre welfare benefits, and left John Nuttall with the impression that his life was in danger if he didn’t go through with the plot.

If Nuttall and Korody were the face of the menacing terror threat facing Canadians, if the threat their ilk posed was the reason that the RCMP was being “forced” to divert scarce resources away from investigations into gangs or white-collar financial crime, if their paranoid/delusional brand of homegrown extremism was the justification for major increases to the federal anti-terror budget, then all this fuss is just so much empty hype and noise.

The RCMP didn’t urgently need more money to combat terrorism; they just wanted more money. And rather than reflexively reaching for our wallets in response to their fear-mongering, we ought to take a good hard look at how reasonable this request actually is.

At that time, the public didn’t have any access to hard numbers on how much the Nuttall/Korody sting had cost. We still don’t have the full picture, but based on recently released figures on overtime pay for the operation, it looks to have been pretty darn expensive:

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press through a freedom-of-information request show the Mounties paid at least 200 people, mostly police officers, $911,090.54 for overtime work during the investigation, which was code named Project Souvenir…

The overall cost of the operation was not provided. Without a breakdown of the number of work hours and officer ranks, it’s difficult to estimate the overall cost, given that remuneration ranges from a starting salary of $48,000 a year for constables to $107,000 for staff-sergeants and beyond.

That’s right – nearly a million dollars went just to overtime pay for this massive sting.

If we go back to the Star’s piece from last year, we’ll see that the Mounties complained that they had to divert some $23 million from other law enforcement activities into the counter-terrorism INSET program in 2013-14, a period which includes the entirety of Project Souvenir. (INSET is a collaboratory program jointly run and funded by the RCMP, CSIS, and the CBSA, and was responsible for the Nuttall/Korody sting.)

Now, we don’t know exactly what the final tally for the sting was, because they won’t tell us, but if nearly $1 million went to overtime, it’s easy to imagine that the total cost, including all the regular hourly wages, transportation costs, equipment and materials, funds given to Nuttall and Korody, and other assorted expenses amounted to more than $5 million, possibly quite a bit more.

In other words, it’s quite conceivable that fully one-quarter of the funds diverted away from other law enforcement activities went to the entrapment of two people eminently incapable of orchestrating any kind of terror plot.

And that doesn’t even begin to take into account the massive cost to the public of the still-ongoing trial, which is now well into its second year with no end in sight as CSIS desperately fights to keep the details of its involvement in the case secret.

As for why the Mounties would throw so much money at such an unproductive effort, well, unfortunately that’s pretty easily explained:

A protracted investigation involving a core number of police officers is bound to lead to an enormous bill, said Rob Gordon, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

“Here, the concern very much is that all of this money may have been wasted because police may have overstepped an ethical mark … about encouraging people to do things,” Gordon said, referring to the question of whether the couple were entrapped.

“If they’re encouraging them, what was the purpose? The answer to that is, well, to get a conviction: to show that they’re doing something about terrorism issues.

“That’s a cynical view,” he added.

Respectfully, Mr Gordon, that’s not an especially cynical view. It’s actually pretty realistic. I would even go so far as to say that it’s about more than the appearance that they’re doing something about terrorism; it’s also about getting more money, more staff, more overtime, more power.

And it works.

Last June, for instance, the Montreal INSET team detained (but never charged) ten teenagers whom they claimed were attempting to travel to Syria to fight for ISIS. Despite the facts that the veracity of these claims was never tested in court and no supporting evidence was ever presented to the public, the government of the day seized on these brief arrests as evidence that more money was needed to prevent Canadian youth from turning to terrorism. Just days after the high-profile arrests, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the airport at which they took place to announce a new $150 million in funding for the agencies involved.

What’s more, then-Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney cited the arrests in his testimony to the Senate on C-51, saying that he was “more convinced than ever” of the necessity of the bill, which radically expanded the powers of law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Under Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, nothing has changed on this front. The party’s widely-touted “reforms” of C-51 look like they will result in little more than a parliamentary oversight committee of questionable efficacy. And the government’s widely-anticipated first budget looks set to leave in place the massive increase in anti-terrorism funding for the RCMP that Stephen Harper included in his final budget last year and increase funding for the scandal-plagued CSIS and CSE.

We can fully expect that those funds will not be used wisely and that those powers will be used aggressively. We can also fully expect that the steady drumbeat of requests for more funding will continue uninterrupted.

As the Victoria Times-Colonist pointed out in an angry editorial, Mounties had sufficient evidence to arrest and charge Nuttall and Korody on lesser charges early on in the investigation, but chose instead to push the couple as far as possible, an exercise of dubious usefulness and incredibly steep cost. As far as we can tell, the RCMP did this for no other reason than to justify the existence of the counter-terrorism programs that they were so insistently claiming were underfunded.

Having secured the funding they desired, how long will it be before they try the same fear-mongering ruse again?

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