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Northern Exposure: Why the Border With Canada Is More of A National Security Threat

The Houston Chronicle reports on border security - with Canada:

Only one terrorist has been caught crossing the U.S. border with explosives and a detailed plot to harm Americans. He came through Canada. [snip]

The United States has only 1,000 agents to patrol the 4,000-mile northern border, compared with 10,000 agents monitoring less than half the distance along the Mexican border, U.S. officials say.

This is a subject I touched on last November when a number of elected officials in the Republican Party made inaccurate and/or unsubstantiated claims about al-Qaeda operatives having crossed our Southern border ( see here, here, and here).

Obviously, the flow of illegal immigrants across the Southern border is massive and represents a serious problem for the United States as well as a potential threat to national security. But the greater threat to U.S. national security is the unsecured border with Canada.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, the border with Canada, as noted above, is much longer and less well manned than the one with Mexico.

Another reason is the mentality of the United States government toward the Northern border. Awhile back I asked a good friend of mine who manages the North American operations for a Fortune 100 transportation company how easy it would be for al-Qaeda to put a nuke in the back of an eighteen-wheeler, hire a Mexican to drive it across the Southern border, park it in downtown Los Angeles and walk away. He said it would be much harder than I thought, and his explanation surprised me.

Our approach to the Southern border for the last four decades has been based on a strategy of interdiction: stopping the flow of drugs and immigrants. We've become quite good at it (despite being overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the task) and the various bureaucracies that have bloomed as part of the effort now provide a level of redundancy that most people don't realize. For example, we have a number of different agencies working on the Southern border (though probably not with the level of coordination we'd like) performing their own regulatory and/or security-related functions: Customs, DOT, ATF, DEA, and others, as well as Border Patrol.

Conversely, our approach to the border with Canada for decades has primarily revolved around commerce and making it easier for goods (and people) to flow back and forth across the border. Again, we've gotten pretty good at the job of streamlining the process. Most of this has been done in the context of working with large, reputable companies who have their own security protocols and safeguards, but the larger point is that we've had a vastly different mentality, and taken a much different strategic approach with our border with Canada over the years.

The final, and perhaps most important reason the border with Canada is a greater national security threat to the United States than the border with Mexico is the mentality of the Canadian government toward Islamic radicals and al-Qaeda-type operatives over the years. Ahmed Ressam (aka The Millennium Bomber), the Algerian-born al-Qaeda operative caught crossing the U.S.-Canadian border in December 1999, is but one example. In his book Disinformation, Richard Miniter quotes author and National Post columnist Stewart Bell who has written extensively about Canadian connections to terrorist attacks, including the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center, the 2002 Bali bombing, and the 2003 bombings in Riyadh. Bell writes:

The list of specific government failures is extensive, from an immigration system seemingly incapable of deporting even known terrorists, to laws that have proven ineffective at shutting down charities and ethnic associations fronting for terror. But it all stems from a political leadership unwilling to take a stand and secure Canadians and their allies from the violent whims of the world's assorted radicals, fundamentalists, and extremists.

Time and again, politicians have been tested, and they have failed. They have dined with terrorist fronts, lobbied on behalf of captured terrorists, and given extremists access to the decision-making process. Canada's official terrorism policy - in effect, denying that there is a problem - is merely a public relations strategy intended to manage Washington in order to prevent the Americans from imposing border security measures that would slow North-South trade.

As much as we'd like to hope this trend has been reversed by the election of Stephen Harper's conservative government in Canada, there are signs the new boss might very well be the same as the old:

Canada will not embark on an untested identity card system to meet U.S. border concerns, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said yesterday. [snip]

He said he is hopeful that the Americans will come to see that the passport requirement will not enhance security significantly but will have significantly hurt trade and tourism.

Clearly, we have to find a balance between economic and security interests with both Canada and Mexico. But as far as the threat of terrorism goes, I continue to be more concerned about our exposure from the North.