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Inside the Perimeter

Author: Stephen E. Flynn
October 3, 2001
National Post

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Bi-national security controls between Canada and the United States will require bold steps from governments and the co-operation of CEOs.

An eternity ago (last June), Americans and Canadians gathered in Buffalo, N.Y., poised to usher in a brave new borderless world. Joined at the hip, George Pataki, the Governor, and Michael Harris, the Ontario Premier, made a powerful case for greater regional integration at the first ever New York-Ontario Economic Summit. The verdict of most of the attendees: the explosive rise in NAFTA trade along with the riches to be reaped by sharing workers, consumers and tourists had made the border both a nuisance and an anachronism.

In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the border is now back -- with a vengeance. Understandably traumatized, Washington is swinging the pendulum from openness to control. "Homeland defence" has become the new national security priority. Canada seems to realize what that entails. Based on a national survey conducted last week by Ekos Research Associates, 64% of Canadians believe the events of Sept. 11 will make the border more restrictive.

There is an alternative to hardening the border. Paul Cellucci, the U.S. Ambassador, has called for bi-national perimeter security. The concept is that the United States and Canada should work together to secure North America as a geographic unit rather than along the 49th parallel. Mr. Harris, in comments on Monday, endorsed the idea of a common North American perimeter along with co-ordinated customs procedures.

Sounds good in principle, but getting there will require bold steps in the face of considerable skepticism. In Washington, there will be those who will be quick to dismiss it as a thinly veiled attempt to paper over longstanding Canadian security lapses that practically invite international terrorists to stop over in Canada before heading south to do their worst. And to the north, inevitably there will be voices raised in alarm over the prospect of pending U.S. annexation.

The dearth of specific proposals does not help the perimeter security cause. Also, constructing a credible bi-national approach that precludes the need for policing the U.S.-Canada land border would take time in the best of circumstances. In the post-Sept. 11 climate, any suggestion that the border should be scrapped is a political non-starter. Furthermore, harmonizing immigration policies, especially as they relate to refugees and asylum seekers, will remain dicey political issues for Ottawa to navigate. Still, we should begin. To jumpstart the conversation, I offer the following:

The notion of a perimeter security approach properly presumes there are few made-in-Canada or made-in-U.S.A. threats that cannot be handled by closer domestic policing co-operation between the two countries. This translates into streamlining arrangements for exchanging information among law enforcement and regulatory authorities to support cross-border investigations. Operationally, it includes authorizing "hot pursuit" of fugitives from one jurisdiction to the next so you don't have the kind of "Bonnie and Clyde" scenario of outlaws racing for the border, taunting pursuing authorities who must screech to a halt at their side of the line.

But the real issue for perimeter security is dealing with threats that arise from outside of North America. Specifically, authorities must possess the means to confidently prevent terrorists or the means of terrorism from gaining access to our countries and exploiting our societal openness to target people, landmarks or critical infrastructure.

The focus here must be less on the patrolling of physical frontiers and more on filtering bad from good within the transport networks that carry trade and people. Biological and chemical weapons can be loaded on a truck or in a maritime container easier than on a missile. The key to accomplishing this is advancing point of origin controls beyond our hemisphere and co-locating U.S. and Canadian border control agents at continental arrival points.

Trying to stop and thoroughly examine every conveyance, product or person entering North America is a formula for gridlock at our seaports and airports. The result would be to sever the transportation arteries that connect the U.S. and Canadian economies to the world. Since this promises to be a cure worse than the disease, border control agents must possess the means to target commerce that is high risk while facilitating low risk. That's not possible when you have situations like the one that now exists in Montreal, where half of the documents for the one million containers entering that port last year had no information about the original sender or the final recipient.

Assessing risk with confidence requires advance knowledge of the identity and purpose of owners, operators, cargo and passengers before they arrive. Therefore, a requirement for gaining entry to the continent must be early presentation of electronic data about who, what, where and why someone or something is destined for U.S. or Canadian soil. This will allow inspectors the time and the means to check and cross-check their databases to decide what and who can be released without requiring intrusive and time consuming inspections upon arrival. The use of eye scanning, finger print scanning and cargo scanning technologies, versus 19th-century paper documents, are the appropriate tools for our times.

Next, Canada and the United States need to establish bi-national inspection zones within our major seaports and airports for the purpose of clearing people and goods destined for their respective jurisdictions. The notion is to concentrate enforcement activities where they make most sense from a transport network standpoint, rather than from a purely geographic one. The border is a crazy place to stop a mile-long freight train to inspect its contents.

Bi-national inspection zones provide the added benefit of facilitating the sharing of local knowledge and building trust as agents work side by side. There is a model for this at the Chunnel, where British and French customs and immigration agents share the same facility for onestop clearance before traffic enters the Chunnel. U.S. law already permits such bilateral arrangements in U.S. ports of entry if there is reciprocity. Accordingly, the ball for adopting this approach is primarily in Ottawa's court.

Continental security is not just the job of the Canadian and U.S. governments. Corporate chief executives on both sides of the border who benefit from free trade and travel must be willing to share in some of the burdens of protecting the public from the world's darker elements. The private sector needs to embrace prevention measures that reduce the opportunities for terrorists to exploit commercial systems for their destructive ends. U.S. and Canadian transportation systems -- air, sea and surface -- are simply too vulnerable.

Private initiatives should include taking appropriate physical security steps that prevent unauthorized individuals and cargo from getting into the international transport and logistic networks. They also should include close tracking of movements within those networks through the use of technologies such as global positioining system transponders and electronic tagging devices.

As Americans struggle to come to grips tragic events of Sept. 11, Canadians find themselves in a predicament much like they experienced in the coldest days of the Cold War. In that era, Soviet missiles targeted at the United States could arrive via Canadian airspace, and Canadians could hold out little hope for escaping the collateral nuclear fallout. Washington and Ottawa stepped up to that challenge by creating the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

That same collaborative spirit is required to combat this century's new form of warfare. In this instance, our energies must be directed toward gaining greater control over our continental maritime and aviation commercial space. If that space cannot be made secure, the public pressure in the United States to harden the border along the 49th parallel is likely to prove irresistible. Sadly, we would then have to add the world's longest undefended border to the Sept. 11 casualty list.


Stephen Flynn is a senior fellow with the National Security Studies Program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and director of the council's project on Protecting the Homeland: Rethinking the Role of Border Controls.

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