A new report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has highlighted the numerous security vulnerabilities that remain along the United States-Canada border. The report, which also addresses security concerns along the southern border with Mexico, was conducted to look specifically at the unmanned and unmonitored areas between the numerous ports of entry on the northern US border, stemming from concerns that these locations pose a significant risk to the homeland.
The report, in addition to several incidents in the past several years, underscores the security gaps that remain along the US-Canadian border, and indicates the potential for extremists to exploit these weaknesses to launch an attack against the homeland.
While security along the northern border has increased over the past several years, there are still significant vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. The areas along the border between the ports of entry are important regions to increase security, as many are often unmanned and/or unmonitored, thereby presenting opportunities for potential terrorists or hazardous materials to gain entry to the US.
Investigators from the GAO undertook a limited security assessment of four border areas that were unmanned, unmonitored, or both along the US-Canada border, and concluded that anyone, including potential terrorists, could easily cross into the US via these areas.
GAO investigators found several state roads located in very close proximity to the border that were not monitored by the US Customs and Border Patrol. In three out of the four areas assessed by the GAO, investigators were able to cross into the US from Canada carrying a duffel bag, which simulated the cross-border movement of radioactive or other harmful materials. In one of these unmanned, unmonitored areas, a citizen alerted the US Border Patrol to the activities of the investigators, however the responding agents were unable to locate the investigators. In the majority of instances, there was no observed response from law enforcement officials.
Additionally, GAO investigators located several ports of entry that had daytime hours although were unmanned at night. The only preventative measures in place to halt illegal crossings of the border overnight were barriers across the road that could easily be driven around.
– US Border Patrol later provided GAO investigators with records indicating that on at least one occasion an individual drove around this type of barrier to illegally cross into the US.
Earlier Activities Involving the US-Canada Border
The US has long faced the threat posed by extremists terrorists or other harmful individuals entering the country via the border with Canada, including:
– In May 2007, Andrew Speaker, a US citizen believed to be infected with extensively drug resistant tuberculosis, entered the US from Canada through a border crossing in New York, despite a flag that was placed on his passport by authorities.
– In 2006, GAO officials conducted an investigation during which they were able to purchase enough radioactive material abroad to construct two dirty bombs. They were then able to smuggle the material into the US from two points on the border with Canada and Mexico.
– In July 2005, US authorities discovered the first known smuggling tunnel running under the US-Canada border. The tunnel was approximately 360 feet in length and contained lights, ventilation, and a cart to move goods and/or people.
– In December 1999, US authorities arrested the “Millennium Bomber” Ahmed Ressam after he was stopped at the US-Canada border crossing in Port Angeles, Washington. He arrived in the US by ferry from Victoria, British Columbia and was in possession of about 50 kilograms of explosives. Ressam, along with Abdel Ghani Meskini, was planning to attack US millennium celebrations on December 31, 2000 and to detonate a suitcase bomb at Los Angeles International Airport .
– In 1997, Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer was arrested, along with Lafi Khalil, for plotting to carry out suicide bomb attacks against the New York City subway system and the United Nations headquarters. Prior to his arrest, Abu Mezer attempted to illegally cross into the US via the Canadian border on three separate occasions.
The Challenges Ahead
The US border with Canada stretches over 5,000 miles; as compared to the 1,900 miles of border the US shares with Mexico. However, as a large portion of illegal trafficking (both goods and humans) comes into the US from the southern border, and given limited resources, there are a significantly higher number of federal law enforcement officials stationed along the US-Mexico border. Specifically, there are approximately 1,000 agents on the northern border, as compared to the roughly 12,000 along the southern.
Drug trafficking and human smuggling activity is more prevalent along the southern border, however extremists or other harmful individuals may increasingly use the lower levels of security along the northern border to their advantage and exploit these vulnerabilities.