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Nov, 11, 2007


U.S.-Canada border is a security nightmare

Increased illegal crossings feared along wide-open northern border


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

Rooms come equipped with night vision binoculars so guests can track the almost nightly catand- mouse game between Border Patrol agents and those 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 accidentally 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 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,” said Boule. “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 present a security nightmare.

And as security is ratcheted up along the nation’s southern border, law enforcement officials up north fear that the “bad guys” — terrorists, drug runners and illegal immigrants — may be increasingly 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 top Border Patrol officials concede the heightened security on the Mexican border could prompt new pressures up north.

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

Nearly 12,000 federal agents patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, along with National Guard troops. Of the 6,000 new 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 mustangs roamed wild on federal lands before they were rounded up and broken.

South of Ottawa, along the St. Lawrence River in an area know as Thousand Islands, agents chase smugglers known as river rats — mom and pop operators running cigarettes, liquor and drugs across the border into New York.

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 their cold 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 in Montana’s desolate prairie stopped two Jamaicans dressed in T-shirts and shorts.

“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 author of a recent study that found terrorists carrying nuclear material could easily enter the United States from Canada.


While Colburn and others say there is no hard evidence showing illegal activity h as increased on the northern border, Sheriff Elfo said there is mounting anecdotal evidence. He points to the discovery in August of two backpacks hidden in a ditch near the Black Mountain Boy Scout Camp north of Silver Lake, between Maple Falls and the Canadian border. The backpacks contained about 68 pounds of cocaine, with a street value of about $1.2 million.

Colburn is well aware of the problems.

“We are nowhere near where we think we should be,” he said in an interview about security along the northern border. “But we are getting there faster than ever before.”

Customs and Border Protection now has air wings in Bellingham, 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.

“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 the Border Patrol will ever pay enough attention to the northern border.

“They aren’t leaning forward on this,” said Rep. Norm Dicks, DWash., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Congress wants to add as many as 600 additional agents to northern border patrols. But some say even that isn’t enough.

“There will still be a huge inequity,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “We do have problems with illegal immigrants on the southern border, but we have problems with terrorists on the northern border.”


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 more than 50 terrorist groups may be present, including Hezbollah, Hamas and radical Islamic groups from Iran and Algeria.

A 2006 report from the Nixon Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, quoted a senior FBI official as saying Canada is the most worrisome terrorist point of entry and 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.”

Among them were Ahmed Ressam — the so-called Millennium Bomber who was stopped in 1999 by an alert agent at a border crossing in Port Angeles, 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 being stopped near Bellingham in 1997. He then moved to Brooklyn where he was later convicted of plotting to bomb a New York City subway station.

“They have to be concerned about the Canadian border,” said Robert Leiken, one of the authors of the Nixon Center study. “If they aren’t, we are in a lot of trouble.”

Law enforcement officials say the presence of suspected terrorists in Canada is a worry, 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.

Canadians are aware that the crackdown on the U.S.-Mexico border could affect them.

“If the U.S.-Mexico border is sealed, it is safe to assume c riminality will be displaced and it is logical to assume it could affect the northern border,” said Cabana. “Of course we are concerned, but it is too early to tell whether it will make a difference.”


Back in Blaine, down the street from the Smuggler’s Inn, Shirley- Ann Leu says she and her husband, Herbert, have learned to live with Border Patrol agents sitting on their back retaining wall, the RCMP flashing lights in their yard at 3 a.m. and the helicopter patrols.

“The big cameras are going round and round all the time,” she said. “They know every car in the neighborhood. You get used to it.”

Despite the heightened security, Sheriff Elfo said he remains anxious about the terrorists, drug smugglers and illegal immigrants who view the Canadian border as an easy route into the United States.

“The help from the feds has improved dramatically,” he said. “But we know individuals and contraband continue to cross regularly.”

Les Blumenthal covers issues about Washington state from the McClatchy Washington, D.C., bureau. He can be reached at