Plugging a Very Porous Northern Border
Since Sept. 11, More Agents, Technology Patrol Stretches of Long-Neglected 4,000-Mile Line



By Bill Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 8, 2002; Page A03

LYNDEN, Wash. -- A shallow ditch is all that separates Boundary Road, which winds through the fields and farmhouses of this dairy community, from 0 Avenue, a similar rural highway that parallels it just 12 feet away -- in Canada. If not for a small stone marker with "United States" on one side and "Canada" on the other, the border between the two nations here would be impossible to discern.

Where Boundary Road ends, rows of raspberry plants run right to the border, offering cover to illegal immigrants and smugglers toting backpacks filled with marijuana.

Before Sept. 11, 57 Border Patrol agents were responsible for this 120-mile stretch of border in Washington state. In fact, until the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the Border Patrol had just 334 agents posted along the 4,000-mile northern border, a fraction of its 9,500-member workforce.

Since then, the U.S.-Canadian border has received the kind of attention that authorities have long spent on the boundary with Mexico, where efforts to halt the flow of drugs and illegal immigrants demanded it. Although the teeming points of entry present their own kinds of problems, halting terrorists who might try to cross these vast open stretches has become the focus of increasing concern among homeland security authorities.

That puts the Border Patrol in a pivotal role: It is supposed to keep people from entering the United States at places other than official checkpoints. It is illegal to cross back and forth anywhere else, no matter how inviting it seems.

The Justice Department's inspector general's office recently warned that gaps remain along the northern border and said more agents and technology are desperately needed. On Capitol Hill, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has expressed concern about spotty enforcement. As did Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.): "I am very concerned, and have been for a very long time. I think the problems up there are large and need to be dealt with."

Some former Border Patrol officials maintain that the Border Patrol relies too heavily on cameras and sensors and has too few agents to fully utilize the technology.

"I've never known a camera that can go down a pole and catch somebody," said Eugene R. Davis, former deputy chief patrol agent of the U.S. Border Patrol here. "It's far from being secure. If a person wants to come in, there are lots of places for them to do it. There are still lots of holes." He noted that the sensors can sound false alarms -- triggered by animals, for example -- and have other limitations. He remembers that "about 50 percent of the time, we had nobody to respond to the sensors."

In response, hundreds of Border Patrol agents, immigration inspectors and Customs Service personnel have been shifted north, and more are on the way. By year's end, the Border Patrol will have more than 600 agents along the northern border, and the Bush administration wants to add 285 more in fiscal 2003.

About 700 National Guard troops recently began aiding inspectors at the 124 northern ports of entry and are assisting the Border Patrol with intelligence analysis and helicopter patrols. From Washington to Maine, new tools are arriving, including cameras, explosives detectors, radiation detectors and dogs.

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge recently reached an agreement with Canadian officials to share intelligence and expand joint enforcement programs along the border. In addition, the Border Patrol is building closer ties with leaders of Native American tribes that live on border reservations.

John C. Bates, deputy chief patrol agent for the U.S. Border Patrol here, acknowledged that coverage has not been beefed up as much as he would like, but said technology helps fill in the gaps. He said that sensors are hidden in fields, trees and other places, capable of detecting movement. When tripped, they sound alarms and illuminate computer terminals at a Border Patrol command center in the nearby town of Blaine.

In recent weeks, a $5 million camera system capable of scanning 40 miles of border was installed on 32 towering poles, meant to complement the sensors. Technicians at the command center can swivel the cameras and zoom in on objects up to four miles away, helping authorities determine whether activated sensors were set off by innocent farmers or schoolchildren, or by someone who appears suspicious and requires immediate attention, Bates said. Surveillance aircraft also patrol the area regularly, he said.

Agents respond in four-wheel-drive vehicles, some with infrared cameras mounted on their roofs. Bates said only so many roads and trails lead away from the border and authorities can cut them off. As he rode along Boundary Road recently, Bates pointed to places where agents have caught illegal immigrants and found drugs waiting for pickup, including backpacks filled with marijuana. "We're able to get there," he said. "We use the technology and the people and the information to get the job done."

There is no evidence that any of the 19 terrorists who struck on Sept. 11 entered the United States from Canada. But Canadian intelligence officials have estimated that about 50 terrorist groups operate in Canada, including al Qaeda, Hamas and the Irish Republican Army, and some allegedly have set up cells in Vancouver, just 32 miles from Blaine.

Nevertheless, security along the northern border has been dwarfed by the U.S. border presence in the Southwest for decades. In a typical year, the Border Patrol apprehends 1.2 million people in the Southwest; 12,000 in the north.

The Justice Department's inspector general's office reported in February 2000 that the Border Patrol "lacks the resources to monitor illegal activity along the northern border." The report also warned that "the porous nature of the border, coupled with limited enforcement," limits chances of making arrests. In a follow-up report released this February, the inspector general's office said conditions are improving, but noted that chiefs of all eight of the Border Patrol's northern sectors said they still needed more agents, support staff and equipment.

Since Sept. 11, about 100 agents have been shifted from the southwestern border and an effort to hire more has begun. Twenty of the transferred agents work in Blaine, which now has a workforce of 77. Congress has cleared the way to bring in even more cameras, sensors and computers.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors greater restrictions on immigration, said the Border Patrol's strategy is sound as long as it receives more agents. "The Border Patrol approach of leveraging their personnel with technology is probably the way to go on the northern border," he said.

In Washington state, the National Guard now provides a helicopter and crew to conduct surveillance and shuttle agents to remote areas. But the bulk of the enforcement is concentrated on a 44-mile stretch east of Blaine where the new cameras have been located and where most of the sensors, which are moved from time to time, are placed.

Rick Holleman, a Lynden resident who owns a trucking company, said he can attest to the sensitivity of the sensors. "I jog along the border every night, and just my jogging can set off the sensors," he said. A couple of months ago, a Border Patrol agent -- just transferred from San Diego -- asked him what he was doing running alongside Boundary Road. "It does seem like there's more Border Patrol around," Holleman said, adding that agents recently arrested two New York men near his home after they were caught crossing the border with marijuana.

Carey James, who retired last year as chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol in Blaine, said enforcers must worry not only about the land border but also about nearby Puget Sound, where small boats zip back and forth from Canada, often carrying drugs.

The challenges in the north go well beyond geography, according to John Frecker, the Northeast regional vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents border patrol agents. Even when agents manage to catch people crossing into the United States illegally, they have limited options, he said. The criminal record checks they perform don't extend worldwide and detention facilities are often so crowded that the INS releases many illegal immigrants pending deportation hearings. Then they disappear.

In Blaine, Border Patrol agents cite the case of Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, a Palestinian who was caught three times in 1996 and 1997 in Washington state, only to be released each time. He was sent back to Canada twice; the third time he was released pending a deportation hearing. Mezer didn't show up for the hearing but did turn up six months later in Brooklyn, New York, where police arrested him in a plot to bomb subways. He was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison.

In the most famous case, Customs inspectors in Port Angeles, Wash., arrested Ahmed Ressam in December 1999 with a trunk full of explosives. Ressam later admitted that he was part of a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport and other targets during millennium celebrations.

Security has been stepped up at Port Angeles, where inspectors are opening more car trunks and looking at more trucks. That's also true at the two ports of entry in Blaine, where the Customs Service received new equipment to detect nuclear materials and explosives.

Trucks are guided through a large scanning machine that alerts Customs inspectors to hidden compartments or suspicious cargo. A hand-held device can be used to find hidden panels in cars and smaller trucks. The radiation detectors -- worn like pagers -- are so sensitive that they are set off when someone undergoing radiation treatments comes near.

Ronald H. Henley, Bates's boss and Blaine's chief patrol agent, said he believes the extra security measures are working. He's divided the region into 13 zones, regularly analyzes information coming from the sensors, cameras, law enforcement and the public, and is putting his agents in places where he believes they can have the most impact.

"All I can say is I don't have any actual intelligence that hundreds of people are going where I'm not," Henley said.