More crossings feared along Canada border

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 12, 2007 

BLAINE, Wash. — Tucked in the rural countryside where rusted cars are buried under dense blackberry vines and paved roads abruptly give way to gravel is the Smuggler's Inn, a bed-and-breakfast on the U.S.-Canadian border.

Rooms come equipped with night-vision binoculars so guests can track the almost nightly cat-and-mouse game between Border Patrol agents and people trying to sneak into the United States. Over the past three years, 105 people have been arrested in the inn's yard. Just mowing the lawn can trip hidden sensors, prompting a flyover by Border Patrol helicopters, said Bob Boule, the inn's operator.

Life along the border can be unpredictable. At most points, the only thing separating 0 (Zero) Avenue in Canada from the houses, fields, woods and narrow roads of the United States is a shallow, 3-foot ditch or a metal highway guardrail. Security cameras on tall poles swivel to track suspicious vehicles. Border Patrol cars barrel around corners to confront uncertain threats.

"We are probably one of the safest places in the world," Boule said. "I can get lights and sirens in my yard in three minutes."

But if the area immediately surrounding the inn and the border crossing at Blaine is one of the more secure along the U.S.-Canadian border, the other 4,000 or so miles are a security nightmare.

Given Canada's open immigration policies, terrorist organizations have established cells there seeking "safe havens, operational bases and attempting to gain access to the USA," according to a 1998 report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The report said that more than 50 terrorist groups might be present, including Hezbollah, Hamas and other radical Islamic groups from Iran and Algeria.

A 2006 report from the Nixon Center, a Washington, D.C., policy institute, quoted a senior FBI official as saying that Canada is the most worrisome terrorist point of entry and that al Qaida training manuals advise terrorists to enter the United States from Canada.

The report concluded that "despite widespread alarms raised over terrorist infiltration from Mexico, we found no terrorist presence in Mexico and a number of Canadian-based terrorists who have entered the United States."

And as security is ratcheted up along the nation's southern border with Mexico, law enforcement officials up north fear that the bad guys — terrorists, drug smugglers and illegal aliens — may increasingly be headed their way.

"It's a safe assumption," said Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, whose jurisdiction includes more than 100 miles of rugged and remote border stretching east from Blaine.

Even senior Border Patrol officials concede that the heightened security on the Mexican border could spur new pressures up north.

"It's logical they will look elsewhere," said Ron Colburn, the deputy chief of Customs and Border Protection, of those trying to clandestinely enter the United States.

Nearly 12,000 federal agents patrol the U.S.-Mexican border, along with National Guard troops. Of the 6,000 agents expected to be added to the Border Patrol in the next year, most will be assigned to the southern border.

Along the northern border, which is twice as long, there are fewer than 1,000 agents.

In Washington state's Pasayten Wilderness Area, agents patrol the rough backcountry on horseback. The 12 horses, mustangs, roamed wild on federal lands before they were rounded up and broken.

In the Thousand Islands along the St. Lawrence River in New York, agents chase smugglers known as "River Rats," mom-and-pop operators who run cigarettes, liquor and drugs across the border.

In Derby Line, Vt., the Haskell Free Library and Opera House straddles the border. The front door is in the United States. The checkout desk is in Canada. That could come to an end. Earlier this year, two vans carrying 21 illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere were stopped in Derby Line.

Residents of North Dakota and Minnesota fear that their frigid winters may have frozen the motion detectors along their border with Canada. Along Montana's Sweetgrass Hills and Milk River, the border in some places is separated by nothing more than a broken fence. In one incident, a rancher on Montana's desolate prairie stopped two Jamaicans dressed in T-shirts and shorts.

Ahmed Ressam, the so-called Millennium Bomber, was stopped in 1999 by an alert agent at a border crossing in Port Angeles, Wash., before he could carry out a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport — and Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, a Palestinian terrorist who was mistakenly released after he was stopped near Bellingham. He then moved to Brooklyn, where he was later convicted of plotting to bomb a New York City subway station.

"It would be difficult to secure the (northern) border with the assets we have there now," said Greg Kutz, a Government Accountability Office investigator and the author of a recent study that found terrorists carrying nuclear material could easily enter the United States from Canada.

Colburn is well aware of the problems.

"We are nowhere near where we think we should be," he said, referring to the security along the northern border. "But we are getting there faster than ever before."

Customs and Border Protection now has air wings in Bellingham, Wash.; Great Falls, Mont.; Grand Forks, N.D.; and Plattsburg, N.Y. The air wings include Blackhawk helicopters, surveillance aircraft and Predator unmanned aerial vehicles. In addition to "boots on the ground," Colburn said, agents use all-terrain vehicles, Zodiac inflatable boats and snowmobiles. Motion detectors, radar and infrared technology also are deployed, but they often have trouble distinguishing people from animals and don't always function well in bad weather.

"Just because you don't see us doesn't mean we don't see you," Colburn said.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers from northern border states remain frustrated. Given the outrage over undocumented workers flooding in from Mexico, they remain skeptical that the Border Patrol will ever pay enough attention to the northern border.

"They aren't leaning forward on this," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Congress wants to add up to 600 more agents to northern border patrols. But some say even that isn't enough.

Law enforcement officials say the presence of suspected terrorists in Canada is worrisome, and they share intelligence on the threat daily.

"The fact that we have identified people connected with terrorism who have crossed the border shows we are paying attention," said Mike Cabana, a chief superintendent with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who oversees border security.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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