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Border Measures at Cross Purposes

This month Security Management looks at the problem of border control. We’ve focused on the southern border around San Diego because that’s the site of the ASIS International Seminar and Exhibits. The U.S. government is also focusing on the southern border. As a national strategy, that focus raises questions.

Several recently thwarted terrorist plans have included among the alleged plotters persons who at times lived in, or were citizens of, Canada. Add to that the fact that last year there was more than a doubling of terror financing from Canada. In addition, Canadian intelligence has estimated that 50 terrorist organizations are active in Canada; compare that to the 40 believed to be active in the U.S.

Canadians share our culture and speak English, but that may actually make the northern border a greater threat because it means that Canadian jihadists can more easily blend in and are, therefore, less likely to draw the scrutiny of security officials at border crossings.

Given these facts, it’s impractical to ignore our northern border, which runs roughly 4,000 miles, compared to 2,000 in the south. Yet of 11,600 U.S. Border Patrol agents, only 980 are stationed on the northern perimeter. Moreover, while the federal government reimburses local governments along the southwest border for costs related to border-related crimes, northern communities get no such assistance.

The obsession with the Mexican border is only one of the holes in our border net. Another is that we can’t really ID people at border checkpoints. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, passed by Congress in 2004, would do that by creating a biometric-based travel card. It should take effect at year-end for air and sea travel and by the end of 2007 for land border crossings. But bills to delay or derail implementation are in play.

Without such documentation, you need only a paper birth certificate or driver’s license to pass a checkpoint. These are neither hard to forge nor hard to obtain legitimately with fraudulent IDs and multiple aliases, as terrorists have been known to do.

If that’s not creating enough of a sieve, we still allow anyone from 27 so-called friendly countries to enter the country without a visa if they say it’s for a short visit. And now Rep. Phil English (R-PA) proposes extending that privilege to Eastern European countries “to further strengthen our ties with our allies.”

We need to get over the idea that a country’s entire citizenry can be preapproved as trustworthy. It’s the mirror image of guilt by association and just as misguided. We would never say that travelers from friendly countries can avoid the metal detector.

The tougher enforcement along the Mexican border may be helpful as far as it goes. But such a myopic approach to preventing terrorists from entering the country borders on the absurd.