The new $1-billion headquarters of the Department of National Defence is not secure enough to house top secret intelligence work and sensitive military operations because the facility at the old Nortel campus does not meet the exacting security standards of Canada's international intelligence allies.
After years of delay, the first wave of 3,400 military and civilian employees will begin the move into the 10-building complex in an Ottawa suburb in November. DND will eventually transfer 8,500 employees to the 148-hectare site by 2020.
Despite extensive work on the complex, including clearing it of listening devices planted by corporate spies in its Nortel days, the new headquarters falls short of the rigorous security requirements of Canada's Five Eyes intelligence partners: the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
"The bottom line is that we made a decision that we are not going to spend the money to replicate the physical infrastructure and the information systems and all the other technologies that are required to support intelligence and operations," Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, the vice-chief of the defence staff in charge of overseeing the relocation, told The Globe and Mail.
For that reason, ultrasecret military intelligence operations, as well as Canadian Special Operations Forces and Canadian Joint Operations Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq, will stay in their current locations.
It is enormously expensive to meet Five Eyes' top security requirements. Canada's cyberspy agency, the Communications Security Establishment, met those standards when it recently moved into a new $1.2-billion headquarters in Ottawa. Every piece of material going into the construction of the CSE headquarters was inspected for possible bugs. All the construction workers were security cleared and the glass exterior of the buildings has special features to prevent spying.
"We had people even go to the concrete plant as it was prepared. When the concrete was poured into every rebar it was checked and videotaped," said one senior official involved in the construction of the CSE building. The official said the the new DND headquarters would need to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up to meet the Five Eyes standards.
Vice-Adm. Norman said the new headquarters will provide "secure facilities … that will allow us to conduct routine day-to-day business. … We can do all the business we need to do at a reasonable security level but we can't do the high security stuff."
Before Nortel filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, it had been the target of industrial espionage for nearly a decade, mainly from suspected Chinese spies. Many of the campus buildings had also been left vacant for years before DND renovation work began, posing the risk that other spying devices may have been planted in the walls.
"The whole facility was swept when we went through in preparation for our moving in," Vice-Adm. Norman said. "Anything that was there was legacy to what I would characterize as industrial activity and we are completely satisfied now that this is a site we are able to move into and it meets all of our security requirements. I am assured anything that was there is no longer there. … It was all legacy, old-school stuff associated with the previous occupant."
A security shield will need to be installed in the dome of the complex's main building that will house the offices of the defence minister, chief of the defence staff, deputy minister and senior generals. These top officials are scheduled to move into the campus in 2020.
National Defence staff was supposed move into the new location in 2014 but it was delayed as a result of extensive renovations, including new windows, security measures and information technology. Construction crews had to tear the walls down to the bare concrete to ensure there were no bugs.
The government purchased the Nortel complex at a bargain price of $208-million in 2010 and allocated another $790-million for renovations. The move will eventually reduce the number of rented and leased DND locations in the National Capital Region from 35 to four. It is expected to save taxpayers $750-million over the next 25 years.
The move will allow DND employees to collaborate and work together at one location while making use of the latest technology, said Lieutenant-Commander Diane Grover, who is in charge of communications for the headquarters move.
"It is very difficult to conduct business effectively when you are literally spread out across a long distance in the National Capital Region. So it just makes a whole lot more sense to have everyone located together," she said. "We can use technology to much greater extent by putting in WiFi, video teleconferencing and use of tablets so we have mobility."