Canadian and U.S. officials are squaring off over how to improve border security without putting the brakes on $1.3 billion in trade each day, a battle complicated by disagreements within the Bush administration, government sources say.
The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the two sides have clashed over efforts by the Bush administration to impose new security controls. Canadian and U.S. officials have publicly crossed swords over controlling truck cargo.
In Washington, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and Immigration and Naturalization Service officials apparently have different views on tracking the passage of Canadians across the border.
Historic allies, Canada and the United States agreed in December to a plan for a “secure and smart border” that both U.S. and Canadian officials said would protect against terrorist attacks while facilitating this vital stream of trade. Seventy percent of the trade with Canada is truck-borne, with a truck crossing the border every three seconds in a stream of 200,000 vehicles each day.
The essence of that agreement was that the United States and Canada would devise ways to identify regular, unthreatening traffic in people and cargo and separate it from unknown or questionable goods and individuals. The idea was backed by Mr. Ridge and Canadian Deputy Prime Minister John Manley.
But talks to implement that agreement have become difficult, people involved with the talks on both sides of the border said.
“The talks now look mired in the ground,” said David Bradley, chief executive officer of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, which represents 4,000 trucking companies. Mr. Bradley said some parts of the American government “want an inspector to check every truck.”
“That just won’t work,” he said.
On Feb. 1, just before Mr. Ridge and Mr. Manley were to meet at a World Trade Forum meeting in New York, U.S. Commissioner of Customs Robert C. Bonner was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “We’re looking at increased security against terrorists at the border. I don’t think Canadians are looking at it the same way.”
“There are at least a certain number of al Qaeda terrorists in Canada,” he said. “One of them could get a job at one of these (Canadian manufacturing) plants and then you may have nuclear material inserted in that truck.”
Mr. Bonner’s remarks reverberated across Canada in front-page news from Vancouver to Nova Scotia.
On Feb. 2, as he left to meet with Mr. Ridge, Mr. Manley told reporters he would not bow to U.S. pressure. “It’s not a matter of satisfying the Americans,” he said, “it’s a matter of satisfying ourselves,” pointing out how vital this trade was to Canada. But he admitted there had been a “push-back by the Americans,” as they had assessed their security needs.
“I think what you are seeing happen is that our government is absolutely saying to the Americans that we appreciate the security issues, but we have got to make sure this two-way trade is not impeded,” said Bob Keyes, senior vice president international for the Canada Chamber of Commerce.
Customs is a Treasury Department agency, and Mr. Ridge is known to have clashed with Attorney General John Ashcroft on security issues. The Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol are under Mr. Ashcroft’s control.
When Mr. Ridge and Mr. Manley met Feb. 2 at the World Economic Forum in New York, Mr. Manley pressured Mr. Ridge about President Bush’s plans to track the flow of individuals back and forth, according to Mr. Ridge.
Mr. Bush has proposed spending $380 million next year to establish a high-tech system that would track people entering and exiting the United States. Mr. Bush has said he wants that system in place by 2004.
Mr. Ridge agreed to Mr. Manley’s demands that the new, high-tech system proposed in the Bush budget would not apply to the millions of trips by Canadians crossing the 4,000-mile border into the United States.
“I assured him that we understand we’ve got a very unique relationship with them,” Mr. Ridge said. “I think this is geared this is not geared to Canada, but basically the balance of the world.”
INS officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, however, the system will definitely apply to Canadians eventually.
On the truck issue, one administration source said that Mr. Bonner’s remarks will stand and that no one will rebuke him. Another administration source said Mr. Ridge is having “turf battles” with several agencies as he tries to put together a homeland security plan.
Canadians like Mr. Bradley believe U.S. Customs is unwilling to accept electronic systems that would pre-certify trucks from major shippers and their drivers.