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Ridiculing US Official Just Made Your Border Wait Longer

We overreacted to Napolitano's gaffe. Why we'll pay for it.

By Edward Alden 27 Apr 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., is the author of The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11. He was a reporter for the Vancouver Sun, and was the Toronto and later Washington bureau chief for the Financial Times.

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US Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano.

After years of frustration dealing with the George W. Bush administration over the tightening of the border, Canadian officials were hoping for better under President Barack Obama. It does not appear to be working out quite as planned.

Obama's homeland security secretary, former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, caused a furor last week when she suggested in a CBC interview that some of the 9-11 terrorists had entered the United States from Canada, and therefore stricter border measures were necessary. The statement threw the Canadian government and media into apoplexy. It seemed to confirm the always compelling storyline that Canada is once again being "harassed" by an ignorant American officialdom eager to blame its northern neighbour for its own mistakes. The National Post dismissed her as "irrational" and the commissioner of the RCMP declared himself "surprised and somewhat disappointed that the secretary isn't better informed."

Little matter that Napolitano's slip should rightly be considered a gaffe. "I knew the minute it came out of my mouth it was wrong," she said later. Neil Macdonald, the veteran CBC reporter who caught her out, set her up perfectly. The secretary, defending American plans to impose new document requirements at the border this June, noted quite accurately that "to the extent that terrorists have come into our country or suspected or known terrorists have entered our country across a border, it's been across the Canadian border. There are real issues there. "

"Are you talking about the 9-11 perpetrators?" MacDonald asked, dangling the noose. "Not just those, but others as well," said Napolitano. Drop the words "just" and "as well" and she would have been home free.

Instead, the furor that has erupted is certain to poison efforts by the two governments to cooperate over border issues at a time when it is critically important to deal with festering problems. Washington is set in June to require passports or other secure documents from everyone -- Canadians and Americans -- crossing into the United States, Napolitano made it clear she will not reconsider that deadline.

Get ready to wait, and wait

The biggest effects will be on Americans travelling north into Canada. Fewer than 10 per cent of Americans living near the border have passports, and getting one is costly and time-consuming. Several states -- Washington, Michigan and New York -- are developing more secure drivers' licences that can be used for border crossing, but very few have been issued to date. Enrollment in the Nexus program to speed cross-border shopping remains disappointingly small.

For Canadians going south, it is hard to see how it can get much worse. A recent study by the Border Policy Research Institute at the University of Western Washington in Bellingham produced some striking figures. Researchers examined southbound vehicle traffic at the three main B.C.-Washington border crossing (Blaine, Sumas and Lynden) dating back to 1985. Historically, they concluded, southbound traffic rose when the Canadian dollar was strong and Canadians headed south to shop, and fell when the dollar was weak.

The biggest volumes -- close to two million travelers for each three-month period -- were in the early 1990s when the Canadian dollar hovered near 90 cents U.S. That had fallen to a low of a just over one million visits each quarter by the late 1990s, when the dollar fell below 70 cents and Bellis Fair was no longer much of a bargain.

After 9-11, however, that historic relationship between exchange rates and travel volumes was ruptured. Even in early 2008, when the loonie was briefly worth more than the greenback, the numbers never exceeded 800,000. As the project's researchers concluded: "A structural break in the relationship between economic conditions and travel volumes occurred in 2001 and has since persisted. People's discomfort with new inspections processes at the border is the likely cause of low travel volumes."

Walling towns in half

For officials on both sides of the world's largest trading relationship along what was once the world's longest undefended border, such trends should be deeply disturbing. And they aren't too pleasant for the millions of Americans and Canadians who live near the border either. In the town of Derby Line/Standstead, which literally straddles the border between Vermont and Quebec, U.S. Border Patrol agents are planning to construct fences to cut the town in half. Up for grabs is the public library, which spans both sides of the border. In the interim, U.S. agents are promising to be flexible in guarding the invisible line: "If a kid [on the Canada side] throws a Frisbee over here, he can come and get it," the local Border Patrol chief told the Washington Post. "But if he got the Frisbee and kept walking down to the Arby's to get a soda, we're going to stop him."

Such twisted formulations clearly cry out for some direction from Washington and Ottawa. But none has come since the early months following the 9-11 attacks, and the spat between Napolitano and the Canadian establishment does not augur well for any improvements.

Right after 9-11, as I show in detail in my recent book The Closing of the American Border, the Canadian and U.S. governments collaborated on a series of "smart border" initiatives that seemed to provide a blueprint for how to manage borders in the face of the terrorist threat. As Napolitano certainly knows now, not a single one of the 9-11 terrorists came from Canada; all arrived in the U.S. on airplanes with legal visas stamped by the U.S. State Department.

Canadians, don't be smug

But Canada hardly had clean hands. Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian who intended to destroy the Los Angeles airport, exploited weaknesses in Canada's asylum system to plot his operation and was only stopped after a U.S. Customs agent in Port Angeles searched his car and found the trunk filled with explosives. Several others living in Canada were part of that plot. Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, who was sentenced to life in prison for a 1997 plot to detonate a nail bomb on the New York subway, snuck across the Canadian border into the U.S., where he was caught and then released by U.S. officials pending a court date for entering illegally.

After 9-11, both governments recognized their common interest in keeping future al-Qaeda operatives and their allies outside of North America. The 30-point "Smart Border Declaration" signed in December 2001 promised close cooperation towards that end. The idea was to use technology and information to separate out "high-risk" from "low-risk" cross-border traffic, so that both countries could be made more secure against terrorist and criminal threats without disrupting the vast majority of legitimate border crossers.

The two governments agreed to share information on incoming airline passengers, to tighten down on visas from certain countries, to develop secure identification cards, and even to post officials in each other's ports to help with screening of commercial cargo. Frequent border crossers were encouraged to enroll in special pass programs like Nexus and Fast.

The Arar effect

But since that first flurry of cooperation, the two governments have grown increasingly wary of each other. For Canada, the Maher Arar case was a turning point, underscoring the danger of cooperating too closely with an administration that had no scruples -- as the recent release of new Bush-era documents has demonstrated -- in practicing or outsourcing torture as a central strategy in its war against al-Qaeda. To that list should be added the horrific story of Benamar Benatta, an Algerian avionics expert who sought asylum in Canada right before 9-11 only to be spirited across the border after the attacks, where he spent five years in brutal conditions in American jails charged with nothing more than minor immigration violations.

On the U.S. side, the fear among congressional leaders and senior administration officials of being held responsible should another terrorist find his way into the country has led to a series of increasingly intrusive efforts to create a "secure" border. Airline passengers from Europe, for instance, are now required to pass along rather detailed personal information to the U.S. government at least two days in advance of any flight to the United States. This is so they can be checked carefully to ensure they are not terrorists like the infamous Richard Reid, the British citizen who tried to light his shoe on fire during a transatlantic flight in late 2001. On the southern border, the U.S. has built more than 600 miles of fences and is deploying sensors, video cameras and drones -- a vast and costly effort aimed at keeping out illegal immigrants and drug smugglers as well as terrorists.

How weak a link?

In light of those measures, Canada is starting to look like a weak link. L'affaire Napolitano, indeed, was set off by comments she had made earlier noting that "we shouldn't go light on one (border) and heavy on the other... If things are being done on the Mexican border, they should also be done on the Canadian border."

A recent internal briefing that was mistakenly posted on the web by the U.S. Northern Command, the arm of the Pentagon charged with security in North America, was similarly alarmist. Canada, it noted, has a large population of "special interest aliens" -- immigrants from countries where al-Qaeda has a presence -- and therefore represents "the greatest potential for foreign terrorists' access to the homeland." Napolitano, in her CBC interview, echoed these concerns, noting that "our two countries have different standards for visas and who is allowed in our countries."

In reality, the differences are small, and in fact after 9-11 Canada went a long way towards adopting tougher U.S. measures on visas and asylum applications. But the comment underscored the conviction -- shared in both the late Bush and early Obama administrations -- that Canada cannot really be counted on to take the tough measures needed to deal with the terrorist threat.

That conviction has damaged efforts to facilitate cross-border travel. Ottawa still hopes that the U.S. might agree to establish "pre-clearance" facilities on the Canadian side of some of the Ontario border crossings, where bridges and tunnels can create long delays. The Harper government is willing to let U.S. agents carry their guns inside Canada, but the U.S. wants more -- full arrest authority that would allow them to detain anyone who arrives at the inspection facilities. The Canadians, the Department of Homeland Security concluded, can not be trusted to deal with such suspicious individuals.

The election of President Obama appeared to offer an opportunity to rebuild that trust. But now it has probably been squandered. Secretary Napolitano knows the Mexican border well, and that experience has made her something of a hawk on border security. In addition, Obama wants to reform the terribly dysfunctional U.S. immigration system, and legalize the nearly 12 million illegal migrants already in the country. Politically that will require that he prove his determination to tighten the southern border.

For Canada, the challenge was to educate Napolitano gently, and try to help her see why the problems on the unfamiliar northern border are so different from those on the southern border. Instead, in her first northern exposure, she has been humiliated. Canadians, unfortunately, are the ones who will pay the price.

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