Jammin’ with Obama

How the RCMP took presidential security to the airwaves during Obama’s visit

Ottawa didn’t just roll out the red carpet for U.S. President Barack Obama last month, it bent its own rules to provide him with the latest in high-tech security. A special cabinet order enacted on Feb. 12—five days before the visit—gave the RCMP one-time permission to break a federal prohibition on radio jammers as a matter of “international relations, security and safety.”

“This exemption Order will serve as a measure to strengthen Canada’s ability to prevent, detect and respond to existing and emerging national security threats,” reads the text of the exemption issued by Industry Minister Tony Clement, recently published in the Canada Gazette. “The use of jammers by the RCMP is required to protect public officials, both Canadian and foreign, and to protect Canadian citizens and their property.”

The exemption to the Radiocommunication Act was in effect for one day only, and covered a narrow geographic area around Parliament Hill and along the route to and from Ottawa International Airport. “Reasonable efforts” were made to limit the electronic interference to “the fewest number of frequencies and the minimum duration.” The use of jamming devices has been illegal in Canada since 2002, although one of the world’s leading manufacturers of the electronic counter measures, Allen Vanguard, is headquartered in Ottawa.

“The use of jammers is standard operating procedure for these kinds of visits,” says David Harris, the former chief of strategic planning for the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service. “Such has been the lethal effect of IEDs and other bombs.” While the U.S. Secret Service—charged with protecting the president—and “The Beast,” the armour-plated Cadillac that accompanied Obama to Ottawa, are surely equipped with such counter-measures, it would be the RCMP’s job, under Canadian law, to operate them. “It’s part of the package for presidential protection,” says Harris. “And these days it would seem a necessity.”

Chris Mathers, a former RCMP officer who now operates a Toronto-based risk consulting and security service, says the devices have consistently proven their worth. “It creates a bubble of frequency around what you are trying to protect, jamming radio-frequencies and cellphones that could be used to set off a bomb.” Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former military ruler, survived several assassination attempts thanks to the technology. And jammers have become a big part of efforts to protect troops from insurgent attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. “All of the NATO people have them,” says Mathers. (Although it apparently took the US military quite some time to refine the devices so that they no longer wreaked havoc with their own communications.) Recently, there has also been speculation that the Secret Service may have evolved the technology even further, creating some sort of directed energy weapon emitting beams of microwaves to fry the electronics inside detonators.

The jammers may well be de rigeur for protecting VIPs, but it is only recently that the federal government has admitted to using them. Last October, cabinet approved a similar exemption for their use at the Francophonie summit in Quebec City, again publishing the order after the fact. Harris speculates that Ottawa has gone public “as a form of warning or general deterrence,” to convince would-be terrorists that their efforts would be futile. But Mathers, who says the devices have been an essential part of “close protection” for at least half-a-decade, can’t understand why the public needs to know about them now. “It’s really Canadian to publish this,” he says. “Maybe it’s just some sort of backwards political correctness—to stop somebody complaining that their cellphone wasn’t working.”

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