The arrest of 17 suspected terrorists in Canada last weekend has added additional fuel to the call for increased security along the U.S. – Canadian border. But that would be only part of the answer – and not the most important part, according to at least some senior-level officials and private-sector experts. Instead, these sources say, the two nations should be working primarily to achieve greater cooperation and more transparency between U.S. and Canadian security agencies. The joint goal should be to ensure the security of the U.S. and Canadian external (i.e., maritime and air) borders while leaving their shared internal border relatively open.
The 5,000-mile border between the United States and Canada – the longest non-militarized border in the world – logs over 200 million crossings per year. The border’s openness supports and facilitates a significant bilateral flow of goods and services valued at more than $1.2 billion per day and responsible for over five million jobs in the United States alone. To cross the border, U.S. and Canadian citizens need only a valid driver’s license and a copy of their birth certificate.
Recently, in large part because of the debate over illegal immigration across the U.S. – Mexico border, there have been calls for tightening the U.S.-Canadian northern border as well. However, as senior officials realize, the only known attempt by a terrorist to cross into the United States from Canada in recent years was the Millennium Bomber, Ahmed Ressan, who was captured in Port Angeles (Wash.), with a trunk full of explosives in December 1999.
The Real Factors InvolvedThere is another significant political, economic, and national-security factor to consider. The key issue in the U.S.-Mexican southern controversy is illegal immigration. The government of Mexico seems either unable or perhaps unwilling to control the flow of migrants through and from its own territory into the United States – which therefore has no choice but to deploy enough manpower (and high-tech equipment) along the border to at least reduce the tremendous flow of illegals to help ensure the economic integrity and homeland security along its southern border.
U.S. security officials are of course also aware that terrorists might try to mix into the flow of illegal migrants to infiltrate the U.S. homeland, but the primary concern – at the present, at least – is the impact of so many millions of migrants on the nation’s economic security.
Canada, on the other hand, has a stable government very much in control of its own territory and policies. It is a nation, moreover, that has long demonstrated a spirit of strong cooperation and coordination with the United States. Beginning with the Permanent Joint Board on Defense formed in 1940 and NORAD (the North American Aerospace Command) in 1958, U.S. defense arrangements with Canada are closer and more extensive than with any other country in the world.
The cooperation between the respective law-enforcement agencies of the two nations has also been excellent – and has improved significantly since the 9/11 attacks (following which Canada strengthened its own anti-terrorism laws). Certainly, the arrest of the 17 terrorists outside of Toronto is clear evidence of the effectiveness of Canadian law-enforcement agencies in the fight against international terrorism.
Foreign Terrorists, But Local MaterialsAny valid discussion of security changes along the northern border requires a clear understanding of the real threat. A merely cursory review of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and now the arrest of the 17 terrorists in Canada shows that, in each case, the terrorists obtained (or were planning to obtain) locally available materials to make their bombs.
Locally obtained materials also were used by Japanese terrorists for the 1995 Sarin Gas attack on the subway in Tokyo, and the U.S passenger aircraft planes used in the 9/11 attacks also were “obtained” locally. This strongly suggests that the preferred modus operandi for would-be terrorists is to rely on locally available materials to build their weapons of mass destruction. The exception, perhaps, would be the use of more complex weapons (nuclear, radioactive, and biological) – but these have yet to be employed by terrorists and must be considered low probability for at least the present. Which is not to say that terrorists would not be willing to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and its allies – if those weapons were available.
Because of the apparent need for terrorists to obtain their weapons locally, the predominant threat at the northern border is not the transport of weapons or weapon- making materials, but the movements of terrorists themselves. That would not be true if the effectiveness of Canadian security forces in detecting and stopping internal and external threats were considerably less than the U.S. capabilities. Here it must be recognized, though, that the position of at least some of those who argue for tightening U.S. security along the northern border is that Canada’s immigration policies and external border-security measures are relatively weak.
Building on StrengthEven if it were true that Canadian border security is weaker than that of the United States, though, tightening security along the northern border, thereby significantly impeding the flow of trade between the two nations, is not necessarily the best answer. Instead – again, in the opinion of some senior leaders – is that the two nations should build on their already strong working relationship by creating a new joint security program that tightens the security of the external U.S.-Canadian land borders and improves their respective ability to detect and stop cells already operating within the United States and Canada.
The political and military leaders of both nations also should communicate their concerns with the other’s external security measures and, if necessary, seek satisfactory solutions to any problems that exist. If the primary U.S. concern is terrorists entering the United States through Canada, then that should be the principal area of focus. But it is obviously less urgent to provide additional internal border security if the external borders of both countries are already reasonably secure, the U.S. and Canadian internal security systems are sound, and there is enough transparency and cooperation between and among agencies to instill mutual trust and confidence.
One excellent example of how mutual security between the United States can and does work is the Joint Initial Verification Team, or JIVT –a partnering of U.S. Coast Guard and Transport Canada inspectors to conduct joint security inspections of vessels bound for the Saint Lawrence Seaway and U.S. or Canadian ports in the Great Lakes. These joint inspections eliminate the redundancy that would slow commerce while also providing both nations with the confidence needed to allow the vessels to enter their ports. Canadian officials are also working closely with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) program and the Container Security Initiative (CSI).
These joint security ventures serve as impressive models of how the United States and Canada should move forward. The exchange of additional liaison officers between border security agencies to monitor security operations, providing even greater transparency, would inspire even greater mutual confidence. Collectively, these and similar actions seem to promise a far more cost-effective solution than spending billions of dollars to flood the U.S. northern border with Canada agents and sophisticated electronic systems that might and probably would help tighten security to at least some extent, but also would have a negative impact on trade and weaken the 200-year tradition of openness between the two countries.
Christopher Doane and Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III are retired Coast Guard officers and visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. Both of them have written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Joseph DiRenzo III
Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III is a retired Coast Guard officer. He's visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. He has written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.