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US Border Security Looks to the North

Border security in the United States has traditionally focused on the United States' southern neighbor, Mexico. But the emphasis at the borders has shifted radically since September 11, 2001, with a new priority on terrorism and more attention than before being given to the northern border with Canada.

In March, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) -- an investigative arm of the U.S. Congress -- made a startling announcement. In a test of border security procedures, GAO investigators, using forged documentation, managed to transport radioactive material past U.S. border agents at two entry points on the Canadian border.

Gregory Kutz, chief of special investigations at the GAO, told Congress that the radioactive material was discovered by detection equipment. But, he said, the phony documentation was never challenged by the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents.

"Although both of our vehicles were inspected in accordance with CBP policy, we were able to enter the United States with enough radioactive sources to make two dirty bombs. The CBP inspectors never validated the existence of our fictitious company, or the authenticity of the counterfeit bill of lading and NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] documents," says Kutz.

Balancing Trade and Security

The test not only shows the vulnerability of U.S. borders, but also illuminates the difficulty of trying to strike a balance between free flow of trade and tight security in the terrorist age.

U.S. border security has traditionally focused on Mexico. In the age before September 11, 2001, the bulk of border agents' time and energy was on stopping illegal immigration and drug smuggling across the Mexican border.

But the focus has shifted radically since that September day, and the top priority now, say officials, is stopping terrorists and weapons of mass destruction from entering the United States.

However, that represents a huge challenge. The U.S.-Canadian border stretches from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans for some 6,500 kilometers -- more than twice as long as the 3,200 kilometer U.S.-Mexican border. Nearly another three thousand kilometers lines the boundary between western Canada and Alaska. It is the longest non-militarized border in the world, and much of it is across remote terrain.

At a recent congressional hearing, Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California noted the small number of federal agents physically monitoring the border.

"At any given time you've got between 200 and 300 people on that whole border. And we've had reports that people drive, walk, sail, ski, sled, crawl, and probably a few other things across the border with impunity," says Lofgren.

Luis Barker, deputy chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, says security efforts along the Canadian border have increased, and there are more joint efforts between U.S. and Canadian security officials than ever before.

"We have almost tripled the size of the force on the Canadian border. And certainly we're smarter now than we were before using, again, intelligence working with our Canadian counterparts to identify those people. And certainly the arrests that occurred recently are an indication of that," says Barker.

The arrests referred to by Deputy Chief Barker occurred in May when Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested 17 men in Toronto. Officials allege that they were part of an Islamist cell intent on carrying out al-Qaida-inspired terrorist attacks on targets in southern Ontario.

The border is quite open. Travelers have traditionally been able to cross freely without a passport, using only a driver's license for identification. That has helped to facilitate trade. According to Canadian government statistics, two-way trade has tripled since the implementation of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in 1989.

But under a new system enacted by Congress, the United States will begin requiring passports from all travelers crossing into the United States from Canada and Mexico in 2008.

Strong Economic Ties

In a recent speech in Washington, Canadian Ambassador Michael Wilson said Canada wants to strengthen cooperation with anti-terrorist efforts. But he said many Canadian livelihoods depend on open borders, and asked for an extension of the 2008 deadline.

"We neither want to be harmed nor do we want to be the source of any harm to our southern friends. We understand that the highest priority in the United States is security and we're on the same page [i.e., we agree] with you in that regard," says Wilson. "But with approximately one-third of our G.D.P. dependent on trade with the United States, like any prudent businessman, Canadians also want to protect their livelihoods and our fruitful trading relationships with your country."

Asked if any border can be made totally secure, Deputy Chief Barker of the Customs and Border Patrol said he believes so. "It's not in the number of people that we arrest. It's certainly in being able to detect people using technology in its smartest way, having the right mix of infrastructure, technology, and personnel to be able to do that. So, yes, we can [make it secure]," says Barker.

The only truly sealed borders in the world have been militarized ones like North Korea's and those of the now-defunct East Germany. As in many other aspects of this struggle against terrorists, democracies will continue to strive to find the right balance between openness and security along the borders that divide them.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.