Diplomatic cable from 1970s reveals U.S. worries about northern airports



Hay River airport manager Kelly O'Connor flips through an aviation history book to try and find information about security at northern airports.  -- Myles Dolphin/NNSL photo

Hay River airport manager Kelly O’Connor flips through an aviation history book to try and find information about security at northern airports.
— Myles Dolphin/NNSL photo

A diplomatic cable sent from the American embassy in Ottawa to then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in September of 1976 reveals serious concerns with lax security screenings at northern Canadian airports, such as in Hay River.

It even goes as far as saying the possibility of a terrorist act is high.

Thus, possibility of an incident arising at these points, including one which could result in enforced movement of a hijacked aircraft into U.S. airspace, appears significantly greater than at major airports in southern Canada,” reads the diplomatic cable.

It describes how embassy officials, travelling by charter flights across northern Canada, were given “no security checks at all and physical arrangements for checking passengers on scheduled commercial services appeared minimal.”

Following their return to Ottawa, the American officials voiced their concerns to the executive officer of Canada’s Civil Aviation Security Program, who indicated pressure had already been put on carriers using these airports to install and operate security facilities.

The fears weren’t necessarily unfounded as the 1970s gave birth to a new era of terrorism.

According to the PBS documentary ‘Hijacked’, more than 400 aircraft hijackings took place between 1968 and 1977 around the world.

The practice became more and more common as guerrilla groups would use it to bargain for hostages or prisoner releases, and many of the planes were blown up.

As a direct result, governments began increasing airport security screenings and new flight regulations were implemented.

The diplomatic cable mentioning Hay River, Yellowknife and Inuvik (among other northern locations with smaller airports) was found on a recently-unveiled search engine called PlusD.

Operating like Google, PlusD – or Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy – allows anyone to search through millions of formerly-confidential diplomatic cables.

Wikileaks, the controversial organization that publishes a wide range of news leaks, was behind the announcement of the new search engine on April 7.

The newest batch of Wikileaks documents made available are dubbed The Kissinger Cables, more than 1.7 million U.S. State Department cables dating from 1973-1976. Henry Kissinger served as secretary of state and assistant to the president for national security affairs at the time.

Today, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) – created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States – enforces security measures determined by Transport Canada at 89 ‘designated’ Canadian airports.

Kelly O’Connor, manager of the Merlyn Carter Airport in Hay River, found the diplomatic cable quite amusing and said he has never encountered a security concern in his 10 years working at the airport.

Transport Canada decides which airports need security screenings and, if we’re not told to screen passengers, we simply don’t,” he said. “The airport will follow all regulations made by Transport Canada and, at this point, they haven’t required any security.”

The Yellowknife Airport is the only one in the NWT with security screenings, but O’Connor said he has heard rumblings that Inuvik and Norman Wells may be added to the list due to high amounts of traffic going through those airports.

Karen Martel, a spokesperson for Transport Canada, addressed designated airports only when asked about criteria for choosing which airports need security screenings.

Changes to security screening services at Canada’s designated airports are not planned at this time,” she statedin an email. “Security is the key consideration when determining screening services, including passenger and baggage screening, to prevent or mitigate threats to the transportation system at Canada’s airports.”

Last year, 26,265 passengers passed through the Hay River airport, as opposed to approximately 300,000 in Yellowknife.