Keeping tabs on suspected al-Qaeda members who have been released into Canadian communities may be costing taxpayers $500,000 to $1-million a year in each case, according to new research.
A York University PhD sociology student has unearthed many of the controversial "security-certificate" program's specific costs by digging up the price the government pays for round-the-clock monitoring, including staffing costs, electronic bracelets, cars, gas and overtime.
In one case, federal department officials budgeted for six full-time agents to watch one released prisoner, at an annual cost of $868,700.
"It is a make-it-up-as-you-go-along policy and the Canadian cases are rather unique in this regard," said researcher Mike Larsen. "The government has adopted the worst of both worlds: You've got individuals subject to certificates in a legal limbo ... and you've created this ongoing expensive policy with no end in sight."
Mr. Larsen said the government has never revealed the total cost of its surveillance programs. "It's interesting to note these costs aren't made public," he said. "They aren't part of the debate."
The surveillance programs followed decisions from Federal Court judges to strip several immigrants of residency status. Canadian cabinet ministers had declared them threats to national security because of alleged ties to al-Qaeda.
The same judges, however, have also found these men can't be deported, because they would be at risk of torture in their homelands, and also that it would be inhumane to detain them indefinitely in Canada.
The compromise that has resulted has been to order four security-certificate suspects into extremely strict forms of house arrest, where Canada Border Services Agency officials watch their every move, even following them on foot.
A case in point is Mohamed Harkat. The federal government considers the Algerian a possible al-Qaeda sleeper agent, and kept him detained from 2002 to 2006.
Mr. Larsen said he is a friend of Mr. Harkat and his outspoken activist wife, Sophie. He says the cost of surveillance is running very high in both human and budgetary terms.
Mr. Harkat is permitted out of his Ottawa house for up to 12 hours a week of pre-approved excursions, where he is closely followed.
The CBSA requested six full-time jobs, costing a total of $868,700, from 2006-2007, including overtime, to watch Mr. Harkat on car, foot and by electronic means, and keep records of all this, according to Access to Information documents obtained by Mr. Larsen.
However, a CBSA spokeswoman said the actual cost for watching Mr. Harkat was lower than anticipated in that budget year. "The total monitoring cost for Mr. Harkat in 2006-2007 is $576,886," Tracie LeBlanc said in an e-mail.
"We will not cut corners on security measures to the detriment of national security."
Records show the CBSA also bought a new car for the job of watching Mr. Harkat at a cost of $31,000. The government paid about $5,000 in annual gas costs and $400 in maintenance for the car.
Mr. Larsen is still in the process of amassing data on other costs of the other security-certificate detainees, including Mahmoud Jaballah and Mohammad Zeki Mahjoub, two Egyptians alleged to be extremists being watched in Toronto under conditions similar to Mr. Harkat's.
More relaxed and less expensive is the surveillance being used against a Moroccan Montrealer, Adil Charkaoui.
A fifth and final security-certificate detainee, Hassan Almrei, remains jailed in a specially built prison in Kingston. The new prison in which he is the sole inmate costs $2.6-million to run each year, according to Mr. Larsen's research.