OTTAWA/TORONTO (Oct 22): Security in Canada's capital came under criticism on Wednesday after a gunman was able to run through the unlocked front door of the main parliament building and get close to Prime Minister Stephen Harper before being taken down in a flurry of gunfire.
The gunman had first shot and killed a soldier at the nearby National War Memorial in central Ottawa before running into the parliament building, according to media reports. Canadian police have not confirmed that the gunman who shot the soldier was the same one killed in parliament by security forces.
Parliament Hill "is an icon of the government, and it would be expected to be one of the hardest of hard targets in this nation. It is therefore of abiding concern that this could have transpired," said David Harris, a security consultant at Insignis Strategic Research and a former contractor for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada's spy agency.
"There appears to be little in one's way to make the initial entry into Canada's parliament."
The shooting came just two days after an Islamic convert ran down two Canadian soldiers with his car, killing one, before being shot and killed by police. That incident took place near Montreal.
While many countries have beefed up security following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and rising geopolitical tensions around the world, security at most official buildings in Canada is light. The sprawling Parliament Hill complex in Ottawa has remained relatively open and accessible to the public.
To enter its main building, the Centre Block, which houses the House of Commons, Senate and the prime minister's office, a visitor need only open the glass-and-metal front door. Inside, there are security guards but no gate or barrier preventing entry to the ornate marble hallways.
Parliamentary staff or visitors with credentials, such as journalists, can proceed past the guards without further checks.
Other visitors are sent back outside to enter at another nearby door, where they must pass through metal detectors and are restricted to designated areas. Children routinely visit parliament with school groups or their families.
Lawmakers typically enter through another set of doors close to the House of Commons, where guards use mostly facial recognition and allow automatic passage.
"The shooting in Ottawa undoubtedly will result in a tipping of the balance in favor of tighter security measures and less access," said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA analyst and now a professor in security studies at Georgetown University in Washington.
"Although we do not yet know the motive of the gunman, the incident is a reminder of the vulnerability of U.S. allies to attacks that can be motivated by many different causes and grievances, including the participation of the ally in the use of armed force overseas," he said.
Canada has sent six fighter jets to take part in the campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq.
TALLER WALLS, DEEPER MOATS
Mass shootings are relatively rare in Canada, which has stricter gun laws than the United States.
The main lawn in front of parliament is used for political demonstrations, and driveways that weave around the buildings are largely clear to allow the passage of parliamentary buses that ferry lawmakers and staff from building to building. Federal police regularly patrol the area.
Though the roads are closed to public vehicles, there are only limited physical barriers to prevent a determined assailant from driving up to the doors of parliament.
A 2012 report from Canada's Auditor General pointed to flaws in security in the parliamentary zone, which is shared by four different security forces: the Ottawa city police, the federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and security services for the Senate and House of Commons.
Not all of the problems identified in the 2012 report have yet been addressed.
House of Commons guards carry firearms. Senate guards started to carry guns only recently.
While building security is now being scrutinized in the wake of the shootings, experts said good intelligence is likely more effective in preventing such incidents.
"Rather than trying to harden the target with taller walls and deeper moats, (the answer will be) relying on security and criminal intelligence to unveil and foil these types of plots," said Christian Leuprecht, a security expert at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen's University, in Kingston, Ontario.
"If you harden one target, they'll pick a softer target. If you make it harder to attack parliament, they may go after the supreme court. Simply thinking about it as a physical security problem misses the bigger problem of how we provide effective security," he added.
Canada said on Tuesday it had raised its terrorism threat level to medium from low because of a rise in "general chatter" from radical groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda. That was a day after the hit-and-run attack on the soldiers near Montreal.
A government official said the threat level meant Canadian intelligence services had "indicated an individual or group within Canada or abroad has the intent and capability to commit an act of terrorism".
The Canadian government was also already preparing to boost the powers of its spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Public Safety Minister Stephen Blaney said last Thursday the new legislation would let the agency track and investigate potential terrorists when they travel abroad and ultimately prosecute them.
At the time of Tuesday's shooting, the governing Conservative party and the opposition New Democrats were holding their weekly caucus meeting in the Centre Block. After hearing gunshots, both groups piled chairs against the door to prevent anyone from entering.