- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Part II: Drug smugglers turn to northern border

Part I: Guarding America’s border

Third of three parts

BUFFALO, N.Y. - They’re hiding in plain sight, just north of here — a short striking distance away from some of America’s most-vulnerable targets.

This silent army of terrorists, including members of al Qaeda, has the “capability and conviction” to support devastating attacks across North America, operating out of “sleeper cells” from Montreal to Vancouver, according to U.S. and Canadian law-enforcement authorities.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has called the 4,121-mile U.S.-Canada border a “soft spot” for terrorism, and law-enforcement authorities in both countries think that cell members in Canada — and others who have relocated to the United States — are awaiting orders, financing and a window of opportunity to strike again.

And the authorities said the large and growing population of illegal aliens now in the United States gives the would-be terrorists, mostly Islamist extremists, the necessary cover to operate in this country.

“Our mission here is very clear,” said Peter J. Smith, who heads the Office of Investigations for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in New York. “We need to develop the necessary intelligence to harden our border with Canada, to make sure we can protect this country against terrorists — whatever their source.”

Since the September 11 attacks on America, transforming the northern border from a vulnerability into a hardened line of defense has become the mission of both ICE and the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), two new agencies within the Department of Homeland Security.

But it is a complicated task, confounded not only by the region’s immensity but by a long-standing lack of manpower and technology along the border; the absence of effective efforts to track down illegal aliens in the United States; a lax immigration policy in Canada; and the necessity by ICE and CBP to devise an effective border-enforcement strategy.

“As the guardian of our nation’s borders, CBP’s priority mission is to prevent terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States,” said CBP Commissioner Robert C. Bonner. “To do this, we are for the first time revising and refocusing our border-enforcement efforts both in the north and the south as part of an aggressive strategy of protection.

“Despite the fact we have almost doubled our staff on the northern border, we are doing more than just adding people. We are adding new techniques and technology, new thinking and a new commitment I believe will significantly enhance our ability to detect, identify and respond to border intrusions,” Mr. Bonner said.

Although terrorists have assumed the major attention of CBP and ICE, the two agencies are still responsible for the detection and apprehension of illegal aliens. Although stemming their flow has been a major concern along the 1,940-mile U.S.-Mexico border, where thousands daily cross into the United States and disappear, it never has been a priority along the northern border.

That fact exacerbates concerns that terrorists will use America’s porous back door to gain access from Canada and hide among the millions of illegal aliens who have found refuge in the United States, such as those from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Algeria and 60 other countries who annually sneak into this country across the Canadian border.

Nearly 300,000 immigrants are admitted each year to Canada, some of whom have been identified by authorities as terrorists looking for safe haven. But because Canada does not detain refugee claimants, even those with questionable backgrounds, more than 10,000 disappear each year into Canada’s ethnic communities.

Mr. Bonner thinks Canada’s existing political-asylum program is a “security threat,” but he said efforts are being made to address the problem — and to fix it.

“We are working with Canadian customs and are seeing some progress,” Mr. Bonner said. “It is, however, a problem we need to continue to address.”

The Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Resource Center (CCIRC) in Montreal, a private watchdog agency, agreed that a proper response to the September 11 attacks necessitated a re-examination of the manner in which foreign nationals — including would-be terrorists — are permitted entry to and through Canada’s borders.

But Montreal lawyer Colin R. Singer, who represents CCIRC, said new immigration laws alone would not solve “deep-rooted policy related problems” that have surfaced in that country and impacted the United States.

He said other pressing needs also have to be addressed, including the failure of U.S. law enforcement to detect a “network of terrorists who undertook sophisticated and prolonged efforts to unleash such devastation and destruction on American soil.”

Mr. Singer said Canadian immigration policy, which authorizes nearly three times the per capita numbers of immigrants annually as the United States does, was designed to help ensure that Canada’s dwindling labor market had a sufficient work force.

He said efforts to curb immigration simply to appease the United States would impact negatively on Canada’s labor market.

But Mr. Singer said the two countries have begun to work together, particularly in the area of shared intelligence, and he is optimistic that agreements that reflect the needs of each country will be made to better guarantee the safety of both.

“Great strides have been made because both sides have not ignored the fact that each has its own problems and needs,” he said.

A textbook case of a terrorist who used Canada as a staging area was Ahmed Ressam, arrested in December 1999 as he tried to cross into the United States at Port Angeles, Wash. An Algerian national who lived in Montreal and trained as a terrorist in Afghanistan, he intended to blow up Los Angeles International Airport during the millennium celebrations.

Some U.S. officials have speculated that September 11 planner Mohamed Atta, who piloted American Airlines Flight 11 as it crashed into the World Trade Center, traveled, to Canada through Portland, Maine, on the eve of the attacks to meet with his “handler.” There has been no other explanation for his Sept. 10, 2001, trip to Portland, from which he could have taken unchallenged the Quoddy Loop ferry line into Canada.

Sleeper cells

With both financial and logistical bases of operation, the Canada-based sleeper cells have been described by U.S. and Canadian authorities as “secretive, operational and loyal” to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Most members, such as Ressam, are thought to have trained in terrorist camps in Afghanistan funded by Osama bin Laden.

Although none of the 19 September 11 hijackers entered the United States through Canada, several unsuccessful plots to attack targets in America have been planned by terrorists operating in that country, including members of al Qaeda. Fifteen known terrorists have been arrested entering the United States from Canada since 1995.

In December, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) confirmed that al Qaeda had established sleeper cells throughout Canada to support terrorist activities across North America. CSIS said the cells represented a significant threat to both Canada and the United States.

U.S. authorities said sleeper cells also operate in at least 40 states from Florida and New York to California and Washington state — living low-profile lives, often in ethnic communities. The September 2002 arrest of seven members of a terrorist cell in Lackawanna, N.Y., just south of Buffalo, was a first major clue to their existence.

Between 2,000 and 5,000 terrorist operatives are said to be in the United States, many of whom are hiding in ethnic communities throughout the country, populated by millions of foreign immigrants, including illegal aliens for which the U.S. government cannot account.

In fact, no one knows how many illegal aliens are in America today or how many more are on the way. Not one single government agency or elected or appointed federal official can say with certainty where they live, work or play.

“And, quite frankly, it doesn’t appear that anyone really cares,” said a senior Border Patrol agent here, reflecting the concern of dozens of CBP and ICE agents assigned along the northern border as part of the new Department of Homeland Security. “One man’s illegal alien certainly could be someone else’s terrorist.”

Stretching from here to Port Angeles, agents and inspectors along the border said once illegal aliens cross through the so-called “border region” — an area extending about 60 miles into the United States — little effort is made to identify who they are, to check where they’ve gone or to round them up.

The agents are concerned, even angry, over what they described as a long-standing lack of any significant effort to locate, detain and remove those who have avoided detection — which could include would-be terrorists. They said millions of undocumented immigrants are in this country, including thousands of criminal aliens — those convicted of crimes in this country but released after serving their sentences.

“The uncertainties concerning interior enforcement, detention and removal, and who’s going to do these important jobs are a major concern to those of us assigned to guard America’s borders,” said Deputy Chief Edward Duda at the Border Patrol’s Buffalo sector.

“While we protect the borders, someone else has got to take up the slack in the country’s interior,” he said. “No one knows who these people are or what they’re doing, and the price of not finding out is just too high.”

Michael W. Cutler, a 31-year Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) veteran who spent most of his career as a criminal investigator and intelligence specialist, said effective interior enforcement demands adequate staffing to ensure that undesirable persons — including illegal aliens, drug smugglers and terrorists — are denied unfettered access to the United States.

But, he said, the country’s interior-enforcement program historically has been understaffed and neglected.

“The proof of this, of course, is the fact that anywhere from 9 million to 12 million illegal aliens live in the United States, but fewer than 2,000 agents have been assigned nationwide to interior enforcement,” he said. “With this kind of commitment, you don’t have the manpower to get the job done. Not now, not ever.”

Illegal aliens

A major question being asked along the U.S.-Canada border is: Whose job is it to find illegal aliens now in the country’s interior?

“That would be me,” said ICE boss Michael J. Garcia. “We are committed to reducing the undocumented immigrant population in the United States, and we are developing a comprehensive, clear-cut interior-enforcement strategy to attack the problem.

“We have new tools to work with, a newly reorganized border force on which we can rely, and the support of the White House, Congress and the American people. I am confident we will succeed,” he said.

But some veteran border agents, inspectors and others are not as confident, expressing concern that ICE’s management is in disarray, that major issues — including an effective interior-enforcement plan — have yet to be resolved and that many of the bureau’s key executives lack management experience.

“It’s like an immigration enforcement tripod, standing on three legs: immigration inspectors at the ports of entry, the Border Patrol between ports and special agents backing up those two operations,” Mr. Cutler said. “All three legs have to be of equal strength to stand. If one is less than the others, like a tripod, the whole … thing will fall over.”

Mr. Garcia acknowledged that it will “take time to determine what resources we have and what we need,” but ICE has the ability to “make significant progress in putting together an effective detention and removal program.”

Still, Border Patrol Senior Agent Larry D. Shields, who works in the Havre, Mont., sector, said most agents think no one actively is seeking illegal aliens in the country, and the longer they remain — with no concern about being caught — the bolder they will become.

“Once they get by the nation’s thin green line of Border Patrol agents or through the country’s ports of entry, they’ve got nothing to worry about,” Mr. Shields said. “And we’re talking about intruders who could have come here to find a job, commit a crime or carry out an act of terrorism.”

Last year, the General Accounting Office said an effective interior-enforcement strategy was “an essential complement” to gaining control of the border, but INS faced “significant challenges” in properly staffing its enforcement program and in “establishing clear and consistent guidance” to those assigned to do the job.

The GAO said that the potential pool of removable criminal aliens numbered in the hundreds of thousands; that the number of people smuggled into the country had increased dramatically; that alien smuggling had become more “sophisticated, complex, organized and flexible;” and that thousands of illegal aliens had sought immigration benefits, some of which were used to conduct criminal activities.

The watchdog agency also concluded that hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens not authorized to work in the United States had used fraudulent documents to gain employment and that many employers were “complicit in this activity.”

Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, vigorously has called for increased interior enforcement, noting that 300,000 aliens in the United States — 6,000 from countries that support terrorism — have been ordered deported but have yet to be processed or located.

Dan Stein, executive director of the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), consistently has argued — and testified before Congress — that a “glaring failure” leading to the September 11 attacks was the lack of an effective interior-enforcement program.

Mr. Stein said because 2,000 agents have been assigned to look for as many as 12 million illegal aliens, there is “virtually no possibility” that foreigners residing illegally in this country will be detected, apprehended or removed.

Further hampering the interior-enforcement effort, he said, are a series of legislative proposals that encourage illegal aliens to remain in the country, including efforts to extend an immigration loophole allowing illegal aliens to become permanent legal residents without undergoing a thorough background check and efforts by Republicans and Democrats to implement a sweeping amnesty program for illegal aliens.

Four years ago, Congress — upset over what it called a “lack of visible results” in the INS’ interior-enforcement strategy despite a $3.9 billion budget — said that the lure of jobs was the single most compelling incentive for illegal migration and that a forward-deployment enforcement strategy along the Canadian and Mexican borders would only be effective if there was a “corresponding reduction in employment opportunities.”

The original INS interior-enforcement strategy sought to create what the agency called “a seamless web of enforcement extending from the border to the work site.” Plagued by mismanagement, policy failures and administrative boondoggles, INS never was able to implement the strategy. INS since has been absorbed into Homeland Security.

Mr. Garcia said the key elements of any successful effort by ICE to disrupt and dismantle terrorist organizations globally would be the aggressive pursuit of intelligence data and increased cooperation among international law-enforcement authorities — particularly those in the United States and Canada.

That desired cooperative effort took a giant step within an hour of the second hijacked airplane hitting the World Trade Center, when James H. Johnston, director of intelligence and contraband for Canada customs in Windsor, called his U.S. counterparts in Detroit offering “every bit of intelligence information” he had to help find those responsible.

“It went without question that every file we had in our office was available to them,” he said. “If we had any information that was pertinent, we wanted to make sure it got to the appropriate agency. I believe they expected we would be there for them, and I’m glad we were.”

After the September 11 attacks, Mr. Johnston ordered that records of all border crossings be checked and forwarded to U.S. authorities. His offer later was repeated all along the U.S.-Canada border, as authorities in both countries worked to identify the September 11 terrorists.

“This is the longest undefended border in the world, with the longest history of cooperation and friendship among those assigned to protect its integrity,” Mr. Johnston said. “Before September 11, we mainly were looking at goods. Now we’re looking at goods and people. If anything, the attacks in New York and against the Pentagon have enhanced both the operation and our cooperation.”

Although it is not possible to shut down the often-remote U.S.-Canada border to every real or potential threat, Mark MacVittie, the CBP’s chief inspector in Buffalo, said it is not unrealistic to expect the men and woman on the line to try.

“We continually are re-emphasizing the importance of our mission and how the decisions the inspectors make on a daily basis could impact on innocent people all across the United States,” Mr. MacVittie said. “We are focused on one goal: Making sure the person being cleared at the border today isn’t headed down the road to hurt someone tomorrow.”

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