Porous border

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Porous border: - Fear unites U.S., Canada, but big obstacles remain in keeping terrorists out

2001-11-04 by Jim Lynch and Julie Sullivan The Oregonian

BLAINE -- Canadian and U.S. intelligence agents fill a cramped office, punch in passwords to access their different databases, then bark information across desktops about border-hopping criminals. Smugglers. Mobsters. Terrorists.

In its first year, this international teamwork at the U.S.-Canadian border gutted a Vietnamese crime syndicate, deported a band of sex offenders and corralled six suspects for the FBI to question regarding the Sept. 11 attacks.

The unconventional Border Intelligence Group isn't some diplomatic brainchild. It's the product of desperation and of the realization that unless resources are pooled on both sides of the border, neither side has a chance to slow the crime spilling back and forth across the continent's western flank.

The low-budget, 525-square-foot office the agents share also may be one of the first international war rooms in North America's new unorthodox war against terrorism.

United by a mutual fear of suicidal hijackers and anthrax threats, U.S. and Canadian leaders are suddenly considering harmonizing immigration policies and creating a perimeter border to keep terrorists off the continent.

Obstacles to such new alliances are formidable. Many Canadians fret that they will lose control of their country if they get any chummier with their next-door superpower. And U.S. agencies historically have trouble sharing information with one another, much less other nations.

But in the coming weeks, as waves of Canadians and Americans are dispatched to fortify the border between them, the two countries may be bonding in ways they never have before.

From David Flaherty's vantage, the collaboration is long overdue. The veteran U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agent has watched border crimes intensify along the top of Western Washington during the past decade.

Smugglers started packing night-vision goggles, Global Positioning System devices and automatic rifles. Illegal immigrant pedophiles settled just south of the border.

International terrorists kept popping up, too. An Irish Republican Army hijacker. Militant Sikhs. A suicidal Hamas bomber.

Flaherty wasn't stunned when Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam was caught at the border in late 1999 with a trunk full of explosives. ``Everyone paid so much attention to Ressam,'' Flaherty says, ``but they didn't look at the 50 we encountered before him.''

After Ressam's arrest, Flaherty tried to shock politicians into beefing up border security by telling them sordid details about the most dangerous criminals working the upper Interstate-5 corridor.

When lawmakers didn't budge, Flaherty talked his superiors into letting him handpick agents from Canada Customs, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the FBI and other agencies to forge a unit -- the Border Intelligence Group -- that could bust the biggest crime rings. The group huddles monthly at the Bellingham Armory with police from as far away as Portland, Ore., trying to learn more about the crime rolling down I-5.

``If we could put out a newsletter once a month and show the public what comes across the border, people would be amazed,'' Flaherty says, ``and things might change.''

They might be changing quicker than he realizes.

The relationship

Before Sept. 11, the U.S.-Canadian relationship was all business.

Commerce between the two nations had almost doubled since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. About $1.4 billion worth of new cars, auto parts, produce and newsprint crossed the border daily. Trade on the Ambassador Bridge between Michigan and Ontario alone equaled all U.S. exports to Japan.

Canada is the top market for goods from 35 states, yet Canada is even more reliant on the neighborly trade. Eighty-two percent of its exports are sold to the states; just a quarter of U.S. exports head north.

As the trade frenzy clogged border crossings, Canadian politicians, U.S. automakers and border-town business owners lobbied Congress to ease costly delays.

Meanwhile, less influential voices warned that the overwhelmed border crossings and lax immigration policies on both sides were making it easier for international terrorists to infiltrate North America and harder to find and eject them once they did.

From 1995 to 2000, Steven Emerson, a U.S. author, documentary producer and terrorism expert, repeatedly gave Congress detailed accounts of Islamic terrorist ringleaders living in the United States. He asserted that Musa Abu Marzuk, a leader of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, had lived in the United States on and off for 15 years, and that an adjunct professor at the University of South Florida was a leader of the anti-Israeli Islamic Jihad.

``I've seen actual videotapes of radical Islamic leaders talking about how easy it is to enter the United States,'' Emerson said in a 1997 interview, ``and how it's so easy to deceive the U.S. into allowing them political asylum. So it is fairly known out there that the United States is a patsy.''

It also was becoming clear that terrorists were border-hopping.

A Canada-based Hamas terrorist was deported three times by the U.S. Border Patrol in Washington state before he was arrested in 1997 in Brooklyn, where he admitted he'd intended to strap explosives to his body and blow up a New York subway.

In 1998, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service identified 50 terrorist groups and more than 350 possible members living in Canada, including members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida, Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, the Irish Republican Army and members of Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

The fact that many of these terrorist groups targeted Americans and hovered just beyond the U.S. border in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver was not lost on everyone. David Harris, a former Canadian intelligence officer, likened Canada to a ``jihad aircraft carrier'' pointed at the United States.

The description fit the development on Dec. 14, 1999, when Ressam was arrested slipping across the Canadian border into Port Angeles on his way to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.

Authorities soon concluded that the Algerian was part of a Montreal terrorist cell with links to bin Laden. Every member of the cell had sought political asylum in Canada. The cell's reputed leader, Algerian Fateh Kamel, had been granted refuge and held dual citizenship.

That Ressam had lived openly -- he was a regular at Montreal pickup soccer games -- had received Canadian welfare, held a new Canadian passport and had built a bomb in a Vancouver, British Columbia, motel room without detection embarrassed Canadians. But there were no policy changes.

Yossef Bodansky, former adviser to the House on terrorism, noted U.S.-Canadian complacency in January 2000. ``I'm afraid until we have a big, big pile of bodies, they won't wake up.''

That happened Sept. 11.

Within hours of the attacks, 31,000 unscheduled travelers arrived in Canada, diverted from closed U.S. airspace. The Landmark CN Tower and stock exchange in Toronto closed. Canadian fighter jets scrambled. The United States' northern neighbor suddenly found itself sharing not only a 4,000-mile border, but also a new sense of vulnerability.

British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell called for Canadians to ``work arm-and-arm with Americans to establish an airtight North American perimeter to defend against all those who would breach our borders for their murderous ends.''

As facts filtered in, Canadians were relieved to learn there was no immediate proof any of the hijackers had lived in Canada. U.S. officials now concede that at least 13 of the 19 terrorists entered the United States legally. The other six remain a mystery. INS Commissioner James Ziglar recently told Congress, ``We can find no record of them, period. That's not just INS; that's everywhere.''

As the FBI and Canadian Mounties question hundreds of people regarding the attack, it's clear that terrorists -- and potential links to the hijackers -- are scattered on both sides of the border. And leaders in Ottawa and Washington are demanding reforms.

Canada's flawed system

Even more than the United States, Canada is a nation of newcomers, welcoming refugees and immigrants at a greater rate than any other country. Immigration has nearly doubled the population in the past five decades. Nearly 40 percent of the people living in Toronto today are foreign-born.

The generous treatment of refugees and immigrants is one of Canada's cultural hallmarks and one of the primary tools for expanding Canada's economy.

That hospitality also extends to visitors. The nation requires no visa for citizens of nearly 60 countries -- twice as many as the United States. Once on Canadian soil, refugees are entitled to welfare, housing, free health care and education. They also get legal advice -- paid for by the government -- that allows people to stay for years while they appeal.

Canada also admits refugees with no -- or false -- documents, and does not put them through a security check until they apply to become permanent residents.

An estimated 2,000 Tamil Tigers, living among 250,000 Sri Lankans in Toronto, deal in drugs and guns and extort money from local families, police say, to finance a terror operation that now has its own ships.

Canada also offers tax breaks for fund-raising, which has made the nation a leading source of financing for terrorists worldwide. Canada's finance minister and international aid minister created an embarrassing flap last year when they were caught attending a Tamil Tigers fund-raiser.

Since Sept. 11, terrorism has moved to the top of Canada's agenda. More than 2,000 members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been assigned to the U.S. case and have collected more than 6,400 hot-line tips.

Among the connections to Osama bin Laden so far:

* Nabil al-Marabh, a suspected terrorist jailed in New York in connection with the Sept. 11 bombings, was found hiding in a truck that was attempting to enter the United States from Canada. He was turned back to Canada, where he was released on bail and disappeared until his Sept. 19 arrest in Illinois.

* Mahmoud Jaballah, jailed since August when a fingerprint check identified him as a member of the Egyptian Al Jihad. He ran a Toronto school with Marabh's uncle.

* Mohamed Mahjoub, convicted in absentia of terrorism in Egypt, is fighting deportation. Mahjoub has lived in Canada since he arrived as a refugee in 1995. He was deemed a national threat and ordered to leave, but remained as he appealed. On Oct. 18, the Canadian Supreme Court opened the door to his removal.

* Ahmad Saeed Khadr, a former director of an Ottawa-based world relief agency, is wanted for questioning in connection with Sept. 11. The Egyptian-born Khadr studied computer science at the University of Ottawa. In 1996, Prime Minister Jean Chretien took up his cause with Pakistani authorities who accused Khadr of financing terror.

Last week, an embarrassed Chretien told reporters he had had no idea Khadr was suspected of terrorist links. Meanwhile, the Canadian foreign minister has announced that Khadr is in Afghanistan, where he is known in Arabic as ``al Kanadi'' -- ``The Canadian.''

Yet, even Canadians critical of their nation's open-armed immigration policies doubt the United States is any tougher. They note, for example, that Canadian border agents caught a third more criminals entering Canada than U.S. agents caught entering the United States in 2000.

``Harsh things have been said on both sides about how Canada is a country that has been a soft touch for the entry of potential terrorists,'' says James Laxer, a professor of political science at Toronto's York University. ``Many Canadians may not want their security interests looked after by the U.S. authorities who admitted the terrorists to their country and allowed some of them to train as pilots for nearly two years.''

Before Sept. 11, about half of the 113 formal northern border checkpoints weren't guarded after 10 p.m. by more than an orange -- often shredded -- traffic cone. Travelers ignored the border, not even bothering to slow down.

New legislation

U.S. and Canadian lawmakers have responded to the attack with a barrage of immigration-tightening antiterrorism bills.

Parliament fast-tracked a new identification card for immigrants, boosted staff to screen refugees overseas and increased border staff. Other Canadian proposals would empower immigration officers to deport people faster and would outlaw terrorism fund raising.

In the United States, Congress authorized the tripling of agents along the northern border and demanded that the INS better track foreign students and better police visa overstays.

Yet it's unclear whether this flurry will deter terrorism and make people safer -- especially in the short term.

Critics say the reforms won't be enough. The new Canadian identification card, which does not include fingerprints, is already obsolete. The changes don't deter refugee applicants from disappearing before their hearings. And more immigration decision-making authority will go to cronies of elected officials.

``This is window dressing,'' says William Bauer, a former Canadian ambassador and refugee expert. ``This makes it easier for people to slip through the system.''

In the United States, the INS visa-tracking technology isn't expected to be in place until 2004. It's also unclear how many new agents will reach the northern border or when. Border officials say it usually takes eight months to get someone new on board.

Focusing on the border alone gives a false sense of security, warns former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart. ``This is the Mexican problem cubed. We can't hire enough people to stand on the Canadian border to keep terrorists out. If you want to put on a backpack and walk into Montana, you can do it.''

International war rooms

The Border Intelligence Group office in Blaine often is almost empty these days as ongoing ``Code Red'' security forces many agents to help out the weary U.S. and Canadian inspectors working 60- to 80-hour weeks.

But the international team is still picking away at 27 complex cases and adding more names to the list of 6,500 foreign criminals in its sights.

Gerry Freill, a Canadian Mountie, talks to U.S. agents daily as he patrols the Canadian side of the Blaine border area. Since Sept. 11, he says, everyone knows that terrorists may be out there. ``They know no boundaries. The only way we're going to win this war is to work together.''

Canada-U.S. relationship a blend of love, resentment

By Jim Lynch and Julie Sullivan

The Oregonian

With the wounds of Sept. 11 still fresh, a Canadian professor told a packed women's conference in Ottawa that the United States' ``soaked-in-blood'' foreign policy -- not international terrorism -- was the world's biggest threat.

Nearly 500 women -- including a conspicuously silent Canadian secretary of state -- greeted Sunera Thobani's speech earlier this month with thunderous applause.

Although many Canadians roundly denounced the University of British Columbia professor, many others Canadians defended Thobani, saying she not only stated the obvious -- but she also may have been too kind.

Canada is as close as the United States comes to a sibling in history and tradition. But the relationship is as choked with rivalry and resentment as any kin's.

And that could be a problem. As the United States seeks allies in its war against terrorism, few are as critical as Canada. It shares the world's longest undefended border with the United States and is the most logical staging area for terrorism aimed at America.

Canadians have joined the war, but they also instinctively understand the anti-American fervor that so startled U.S. citizens.

Canada grieved Sept. 11. So many people placed flowers and messages at the U.S. Embassy's gates that traffic backed up for blocks. Montreal firetrucks flew the red, white and blue. More than 100,000 mourners packed Ottawa's Parliament Hill.

But a nationally televised town hall meeting in Toronto just eight days after the attack startled even Canadians with its harsh and scolding tenor.

``The chattering classes have been appallingly anti-American,'' J.L. Granatstein, a Canadian historian, says of the post-Sept. 11 reaction. ``Here we have a situation where the United States is, as far as I can tell, wholly blameless, and the very substantial response is, `They deserved it.'''

Even Canada hates us?

Perhaps. In his book, ``Yankee Go Home? Canadians and Anti-Americanism,'' Granatstein says that Canadian politicians have used anti-Americanism to manipulate the masses since the American Revolution.

Others say U.S. draft dodgers, who fled north during the Vietnam War and later taught at Canadian universities, institutionalized their own harsh views of the United States.

Most Canadians, though, say anti-Americanism is the natural reaction to living next door to an elephant they can neither influence nor control.

The result has been legions of activists whose ``life's work is the critique of American culture and foreign policy,'' says James MacKinnon, a Vancouver journalist.

All Canadians relate to anti-Americanism at some level, says MacKinnon, because they all feel the effects of living so close to such a potent neighbor. ``The flood of cultural and commercial power that people experience affects them at such a personal level that they rebel.''

Canadians who see themselves as a force for peace and equality in the world, decry the U.S. culture of guns, greed and consumption. They also criticize U.S. self-centeredness that constantly shows itself -- even when building anti-terrorism alliances.

When President Bush saluted America's 18 closest allies in his historic speech to Congress after Sept. 11, he omitted Canada. When Canada finally made it onto the White House script, on the television show ``The West Wing,'' writers placed Ontario north of the wrong state. Comedian Jay Leno snidely noted Canada's entrance into the war in Afghanistan with its ``one tank.''

He overlooked the fact that one-third of the Canadian navy -- six ships -- and 2,000 military men and women were en route to the hostilities.

``Whenever America has rounded up the posse, Canada has always been right there, and that's something Americans don't appreciate,'' says Joel Sokolsky, a professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Joining the posse now -- against terrorists -- has caused new anxiety. For years, traveling Canadians have ensured their safety by sewing a red maple leaf to their backpacks to distinguish themselves from Americans.

David Harris, a former Canadian intelligence officer, says Canadians need to realize that although Canada isn't ``The Great Satan, terrorists might see it as Little Satan.''

Many uneasy Canadians have at least softened their criticism since Sept. 11. Even jokes seem inappropriate. One Canadian Web page devoted to anti-American humor has gone black since Sept. 11, with a one-sentence explanation: ``One assault is enough for today.''

Even staunch critics admit conflicting feelings: They fear the United States and fear being without it.

``Canadians feel generally about Americans like they do about winter,'' Sokolsky says. ``They bitch about them, but in the end, they love them.''

2001 Associated Press.

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 04, 2001


On Dec 7th 1941, Canada stood as our only partner in the world war. That was for one day, then everyone else joined in - after they had the nite to think about it.

-- (perry@ofuzzy1.com), November 04, 2001.

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