A disguised man's ability to sneak onto an international Air Canada flight using someone else's boarding pass raises troubling questions, said U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.
The case, which made headlines around the world, involved an unidentified man using an elaborate mask that added decades to his age. He boarded the flight in Hong Kong without photo identification matching his disguise and removed the mask while en route to Vancouver.
In an era when air passengers are checked and double-checked, and no-fly lists are created to keep specific people off planes, it raised eyebrows that he was able to get on board.
"I understand that it's under investigation right now, as it ought to be," Ms. Napolitano, laying extra emphasis on the latter words, told reporters during a roundtable after appearing at the Halifax International Security Forum.
"And I think a lot of us have questions about how this happened and ... how he was able to get on the plane."
The case was creating buzz Saturday at the conference, which brings together policy-makers, military officers, academics and think-tank members.
In a panel discussion kicking off the day, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews sought to play down the incident's significance, saying that people regularly try to enter the country illegally. Questioned later by reporters he acknowledged that it was "very troubling" the man had been able to evade security rules designed to confirm identity.
"That is disconcerting," he said as he left the conference. "That does concern me. So, that issue is very troubling."
In a memo leaked last week, the Canada Border Services Agency calls the late October incident an "unbelievable case of concealment."
"The passenger in question was observed at the beginning of the flight to be an elderly Caucasian male who appeared to have young looking hands," the memo reveals. "During the flight the subject attended the washroom and emerged an Asian male that appeared to be in his early 20s."
While the situation has no apparent terrorist link – the man is said to be a refugee claimant – it raises obvious questions about airport security. Ottawa is investigating the screening practices of Air Canada. A corporate spokesman cautions that "the investigation is ongoing and the facts are not established."
Ms. Napolitano said the incident illustrated the lengths some people are willing to go to circumvent security procedures.
"I saw the pictures but I don't have the actual operational details, but I think these are further illustrations of different tactics and techniques used," she said in a press availability alongside Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak.
Mr. Barak said he had not heard about the incident and appeared incredulous when it was explained to him.
"I don't understand how someone can go with a mask and someone who looks at him from half a metre cannot see," he said. "I don't talk about the concrete case but we basically should wake up to realize that it's a huge responsibility to protect our people."
With a report from Colin Freeze and Jill Mahoney