- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

Part I: Controlling Americas northern border in the new age of terrorism is a daunting task.

BLAINE, Wash. - More than 45 million trucks and cars will cross this year from Canada into the United States, any one of which could be carrying terrorists, concealing weapons of mass destruction, hiding illegal aliens or transporting illicit drugs.

This flow of vehicles, along with 80 million people, will be greeted by an undermanned force of customs and immigration inspectors at 150 ports of entry along the world’s longest undefended international boundary and a thinly stretched line of Border Patrol agents stationed in the often-remote regions between the ports.

“The people up here were pretty much forgotten over the years, with most of the resources going to the southern border,” said Chief Ronald H. Henley, who heads the Border Patrol’s Blaine sector, one of the most active alien- and drug-smuggling corridors along the northern border.

“That all changed after September 11, with significant increases in manpower and technology,” Chief Henley said.

But controlling America’s 4,121-mile northern border in the new age of terrorism is a daunting challenge, especially because neither the United States nor Canada — the two largest trading partners in the world — have wanted security enhancements to jeopardize the free flow of trade.

Composed of urban cities, rural towns and a majestic mix of rolling plains, national parks and flower-covered meadows, the border’s beauty belies some of the problems its expansiveness poses. Its sheer size makes it easily penetrable, despite natural barriers such as rugged mountains and fast-moving rivers.

Consider this:

• Illegal aliens from as many as 60 nations — including China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria, South Korea, Yemen and Mexico — are being caught every year trying to sneak into the United States from Canada, according to the newly formed Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

• A global network of international terrorists, including members of al Qaeda, has established “sleeper cells” throughout Canada, where members have the capability and conviction to support terrorist activities across North America.

• Like its highly publicized southern counterpart, the 1,940-mile U.S.-Mexico border, the northern boundary remains an unwieldy domain to which innovative drug smugglers adapt, using everything from horses and snowmobiles to airplanes and boats to traverse it.

A two-month investigation by The Washington Times, including a monthlong tour of ports of entry and Border Patrol stations from Washington state to Maine, found that because protecting the U.S.-Canada border was never a priority — not for the White House or Congress — adequate funding never has been available, leaving authorities to play catch-up after September 11.

The Times found that immigration policies in the United States and Canada often were muddled or favored amnesty and guest-worker programs, thwarting efforts to stanch the flow of illegal aliens. Manpower and equipment necessary to stop aliens or illegal drugs never was a priority.

As a result, there is no information or even an estimate by U.S. officials on how many illegal aliens enter the United States annually from Canada or how frequently the border is breached by drug smugglers.

But it happens, and the numbers are growing.

“Protecting the border is a huge undertaking, and while we were apprehensive at first about increased enforcement challenges along the northern border with the creation of new agencies and the addition of manpower and technology, we are now hoping for the best,” said Gerald J. Slaminski, port director at the CBP’s Port Angeles, Wash., station.

“But I can tell you, it’s somewhat like when you first open a puzzle box, and you just can’t imagine that all 5,000 pieces will ever be put together.”

Line of defense

The investigation by The Times found that significant enhancements have been put into place all along the northern border since September 11, including dramatic upgrades in manpower and technology. The CBP is using those people and that equipment to guard America’s northern border as a key component of the fledgling $37.6 billion Department of Homeland Security.

“Our goal is to substantially increase our control of the border, which is essential, given the real and ongoing threat of international terrorism,” said Robert C. Bonner, commissioner of the CBP. “To accomplish that goal, we have undergone the most profound and challenging reorganization in U.S. history. Can it be done? Of course.”

Along with an array of seismic meters, infrared devices, magnetic sensors and sophisticated software programs, some of the newest technology being used or developed along the northern border includes:

• VACIS, the Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System, which searches trucks, containers, cargo and passenger vehicles for explosive devices, contraband and people using gamma rays, like X-rays, that produce images that are scanned by border inspectors.

• Radiation detectors, mounted on more than two dozen specially equipped trucks at ports of entry along the border to scan trucks and cars for radiation emissions — part of a CBP effort to detect weapons of mass destruction, including so-called “dirty bombs” that terrorists might try to use in this country.

• The Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT), which requires businesses to assess their supply chain, providing specific information about their trucks, drivers, cargos, suppliers and routes. Seven Fortune 500 companies helped develop the program — BP America, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors, Motorola, Sara Lee and Target — and more than 4,000 have since signed up.

• A state-of-the-art video-surveillance system known as “smart camera” installed at several ports of entry along the northern border. The multimillion-dollar program, developed by ObjectVideo of Reston, combines the use of artificial intelligence with surveillance cameras to detect unusual movements along the border.

CBP and its companion agency, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), were born March 1, the government’s newest — and, perhaps, its last — attempt to put one law-enforcement face on the border.

“We have brought together the investigative tools of customs and the enforcement authority of immigration,” said ICE boss Michael J. Garcia. “Working together, we are creating a federal law enforcement agency with incredible power to protect the people of the United States.”

CBP has 40,000 former Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Border Patrol and Agriculture Department personnel, while ICE includes 14,000 employees from Customs, INS, the Federal Protective Service and the Federal Air Marshals Service — all of whom had been assigned to five separate agencies in three different departments of government.

Northern vs. southern

With the primary task of preventing terrorists and their weapons from entering the United States, CBP and ICE have a mandate to investigate, apprehend and prosecute those who would smuggle people, drugs or other contraband into the country.

But the inspectors, agents and investigators now assigned along the Canadian border face a much different challenge than their southern counterparts.

“The southern border is a young man’s game, but a good place to get experience,” said Border Patrol Senior Agent Larry D. Shields, who works the U.S.-Canada border out of the Havre, Mont., office. “Up here, you’re expected to know your job. Nobody’s going to tell you how to do it, but you will be expected to get it done.”

The numbers speak for themselves.

On the 1,940-mile southern border, CBP has assigned 9,539 Border Patrol agents, compared with 999 on the 4,121-mile northern border. It has 4,733 customs, immigration and agricultural inspectors in the south and 3,256 in the north.

Down south, agents and inspectors battle a flood of undocumented immigrants, along with alien and drug smugglers, while examining $250 billion in annual cross-border trade — and checking for terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. Those officers have made more than 14 million arrests since 1993 and will take into custody 1 million people this year alone — about 2,800 a day.

In the north, the agents and inspectors are part of an enforcement strategy that historically has been aimed at facilitating the free flow of trade, more than $500 billion this year. They have made fewer than 140,000 arrests since 1993, with 10,000 expected this year — about 28 a day.

Lax immigration policies

Many border agents and inspectors think that increased technology and manpower, although warranted and appreciated, are not the only answers to gaining control of the border, particularly in the fight to guard against terrorism.

They said Canada’s lax immigration laws allow aliens from around the world — including those from Islamic nations that embrace terrorism — to enter that country with little or no scrutiny and to stay indefinitely.

Ahmed Ressam, for example, an Algerian convicted of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport during the millennium celebrations, was caught by Customs Service inspectors entering Port Angeles in December 1999 from Canada, where he lived as a refugee — even receiving a $500 monthly government stipend pending an immigration appeal.

At the time of his arrest, Ressam had a Canadian passport and driver’s license that identified him as Montreal resident Benni Antoine Noris.

Since 1995, at least 15 persons identified by federal authorities as known terrorists have been caught crossing the border from Canada, two in Blaine alone.

Canada sought after September 11 to review policies, legislation, regulations and programs to prevent terrorists from entering that country; to protect against terrorist acts; to identify, prosecute, convict and punish terrorists; to keep the Canada-U.S. border secure and open to legitimate trade; and to work with the international community to bring terrorists to justice.

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

Ressam is a textbook case: He used a phony French passport to enter Canada in 1994, and when challenged by Canadian authorities, he requested political asylum, saying he had been tortured in Algeria and falsely accused of terrorist activities. Without checking with the Algerian government, Canadian officials released him pending a hearing on his refugee status.

He lived in a Montreal apartment complex for four years that had been identified by authorities as the headquarters of a terrorist cell connected to al Qaeda. Unemployed the entire time, Montreal police said he was a thief, arrested four times and convicted once, for which he paid a fine.

When he failed to show up for his immigration hearing, a warrant was issued for his arrest. He then obtained a Canadian passport using a stolen baptismal certificate in the name of Benni Antoine Noris. He left Montreal in 1998 to travel to Afghanistan, where he attended an al Qaeda terrorist training camp.

Ressam returned to Montreal in 1999, using his Canadian passport. That year, when French authorities asked Canadian officials to execute search warrants on Ressam’s apartment, it took the Canadian government six months to process the request. By that time, he was on his way to Los Angeles.

But James H. Johnston, a top official with the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, said the September 11 attacks strengthened long-standing partnerships between law enforcement authorities in Canada and the United States — generating new strategies, ideas and plans on both sides of the border.

“We’ve been able to maximize our efforts, particularly in the area of information sharing, which translates into higher border security,” said Mr. Johnston, director of the intelligence and contraband division in Windsor, Canada. “Before September 11, we mainly were checking goods. Now we’re looking at everything and everyone.

“Because one customs inspector in the United States did her job, that caused all of us to think and significantly change how we now do business,” he said, referring to U.S. Customs Inspector Diana Dean, who was responsible for Ressam’s arrest.

Not all the blame lies with Canada, said former Congressman Jack Metcalf, a three-term Republican who also served in the Washington state Legislature for 24 years. He thinks the White House and Congress have failed to establish a sensible border policy to guarantee the nation’s security.

“A country with no borders is no country at all,” said Mr. Metcalf, now retired on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound north of Seattle. “For more than a hundred years, we were very careful about who came into this country. We had an immigration plan that was sensible and organized. Now, it’s just plain dangerous.

“The Clinton administration didn’t do its job in protecting our borders, particularly here in the north,” he said. “The Bush administration has been lax in its stewardship of the southern border because of its close relationship with Mexican President Vicente Fox.”

Mr. Metcalf urged Mr. Bush to create a border strategy that would “better guarantee our safety,” both in the north and the south. He said although such a plan would be expensive, “it’s a problem we can’t continue to ignore.”

Trade vs. security

The challenge in the north, border officials and law enforcement authorities said, is to upgrade security without hindering the daily shipment of $1.4 billion in traded goods across the U.S.-Canada border.

“Our top priority is to stop terrorists and weapons of mass destruction from entering the country, but we can’t choke off trade in doing so,” said Kevin Weeks, CBP director of field operations in Detroit. “It is essential we do everything possible to protect against terrorism, but we must also protect our global trading system — without undue or costly delays at the border.”

That fact was never more clear than on the day after the September 11 attacks, when delays at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit — the world’s busiest port of entry — backed up traffic for more than 20 hours because of increased security.

Several of the 40 assembly plants in Michigan owned by the Big Three automakers, for example, had to shut down after running out of parts from what are known in the industry as “just in time” deliveries from Canada. The closures cost millions of dollars in lost revenue and wages.

“The net effect was not having a bridge at all,” said Mr. Weeks, adding that the pressure to keep trade moving forced a re-evaluation of priorities and a redefinition of responsibilities. “I feel good about our chances of preventing terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, while keeping a thriving border.”

One of the principals in the effort to reinforce the northern border was Mr. Bonner, CBP commissioner, who vigorously pushed for increased funding for personnel and additional inspection and detection technology.

“We sought to take on the challenges posed by September 11 and the continuing threat of terrorist attacks on our nation, and if we were going to be successful, we needed the manpower and resources to get the job done,” Mr. Bonner said. “It was as simple as that.”

Located two hours north of Seattle and 30 minutes south of Vancouver, British Columbia, the Blaine port of entry is a key player along the U.S.-Canada border. Nearly 3 million trucks and cars passed through the facility last year.

Margaret R. Fearon, CBP port director at Blaine, described as an “unprecedented challenge” the effort to improve security along the northern border, but said with staffing increases, new technology and a revised organization structure, she thinks the revamped agency is up to the task.

“We now have the ability to maintain a full-court press,” she said. “We need to keep the pressure on, but I have no doubt we will be successful.”

The optimism expressed by Mrs. Fearon is common along the northern border, from here to Maine, but no one dismisses one constant fact: Terrorists, illegal aliens and drug smugglers can — and do — find their way into the United States over the mostly unguarded Canadian border.

“If the goal is to stop every terrorist, every illegal alien, every drug smuggler, then we have set ourselves up for failure,” Mr. Bonner said. “But the goal is to gain substantial control of the border, to make it far more difficult to illegally enter the United States. And that we can do.”

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