Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 1, 2006

US-Canada border security under scrutiny

Filed under: Border Security — by Christian Beckner on June 1, 2006

Reuters and the Houston Chronicle both published in-depth stories on US-Canada border security in the last day, and a columnist at the Arizona Republic writes on the topic today. The departure point for the two news stories is a decision by Customs and Border Protection to strengthen ID checks at border checkpoints in New England where people had previously been “waved through” as a matter of course. As Reuters notes:

peacearch.jpgThe United States has tightened security with Canada in its northeast corner to the dismay of businesses and residents accustomed to crossing the world’s longest undefended border with little more than a wave of a hand or a flash of a driver’s license.

Since last week, most travelers from Canada are being required to show identification and submit to background checks at U.S. border posts in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, said Ted Woo, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman in Boston.

“It’s such a shock to all of us here,” said Florence Joyal, 68, who works the cash register in a general store in the Vermont village of Derby Line, whose Main Street leads straight into the Canadian province of Quebec.

“Before, you didn’t even show your ID to cross the border.”

The article notes that inspectors will still have the discretion to wave through people who they recognize – which at many of the smaller New England checkpoints, is probably a very high percentage of crossers. And it notes that “five Canadian provinces and the six New England states agreed this month to work together to postpone” the implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which would require people crossing the US-Canada border to possess certain types of biometric ID’s, e.g. the PASS card.

Meanwhile, the column by E.J. Montini in the Arizona Republic takes a worrisome note to the issue of US-Canada border security, citing the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism which reads:

“Terrorists have capitalized on liberal Canadian immigration and asylum policies to enjoy safe haven, raise funds, arrange logistical support and plan terrorist attacks.”

He then suggests (also in his related blog post) that the United States has become overly fixated with the southern border, but he doesn’t go on offer any suggestions about how to address this issue.

In response to this editorial I would note two things. First, there have been substantial new resources directed toward US-Canada border security since 9/11. At the time of 9/11, there were only 350 Border Patrol agents deployed on the US-Canada border; that total has more than tripled. The number of inspectors at the points-of-entry has also doubled.

Second, at this point, I don’t think a strategy of adding more agents and inspectors at the northern border is the most effective way to counter terrorism. Instead, I think the right approach is to do the hard work of integrating our intelligence and watch list capabilities with the relevant agencies in the Canadian government, with the goal of creating a “common zone of security” with Canada. This won’t be easy, and proposals like this often invite skepticism on both sides of the border. But given the two countries’ strong common interests, and the fact that many alternative approaches are costly and/or inhibit the free flow of people of goods, it’s ultimately the most effective strategy to pursue.

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1 Comment »

Comment by Tim B

June 2, 2006 @ 9:57 am

I think we should be severely questioning why DHS can’t present, at least a high level, the methodology for their threat assessment. We need to know how this decision was reached, especially given the track record for patronage at the Department. Publishing the funding numbers enumertes, for all, what you consider high-value targets, so saying that the methodology is “classified” is garbage in my opinion.

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