Skip to content

North by Northwest

When it comes to border security in the United States, concerns about illegal immigration and spillover violence from Mexico’s drug war have led the public, the media, and the political establishment to focus attention on the southwest. At the end of fiscal year 2010, southern border patrol agents outnumbered their northern brethren by a ratio of almost eight to one. This approach is not universally embraced. As some experts have noted, the Millennium Bomber entered the United States through Canada, and Canadian cities not far from the border are believed to harbor small pockets of jihadist militants and sympathizers, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

In February, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) gave critics of the southern focus more ammunition. The congressional watchdog noted that for 2010, the CBP, which is part of the DHS, had only a fourth of the northern border under “full situational awareness”—the condition required for the agency to be able to say that its ability to detect a breach is high. And if an illegal entry were detected, Border Patrol would only have the ability to adequately respond at 32 of the nearly 4,000 northern border miles.

Members of Congress expressed their displeasure. “DHS has to realize that we have two borders that need our attention,” said long-time northern border security advocate Rep. Candice Miller (RMI), chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, after the report’s release. “The northern tier faces security challenges which are every bit as troubling as those facing our southern border, and we cannot let one falter at the expense of the other.”

Joe Lieberman (I-CT), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, agreed with that viewpoint. “The American people are grossly under-protected along our northern border,” he said in reaction to the GAO report.

The primary fear on the northern border is that terrorists could use Canada as a staging ground for an attack and then slip unbeknownst into the United States along a largely unsecured border in between official ports of entry where people are sparse. It’s the mission of the CBP, particularly the U.S. Border Patrol, to stop that from happening.

Despite the GAO findings, CBP officials assert that the agency has not neglected the northern border. The problem, CBP officials explain, is one of perception. The critics don’t grasp that the northern and southern borders are different animals that require different risk management strategies.

To address the unique challenges presented by the northern border’s vast expanses between ports of entry, the CBP has adopted a layered-security approach. While the CBP has many programs that make up this strategy, three relatively new ones stand out for the innovative ways each improves situational awareness for the CBP and its law enforcement partners on both sides of the border. And the improvements have made at least one powerful critic take notice.

Between Ports

The 4,000-mile expanse of land and water border that separates the United States and Canada has been called the longest nonmilitarized border in the world today. The rugged and varied terrain in between the official ports of entry (POEs) presents many opportunities for enemies to enter the country undetected, whether by water, land, or air.

The northern border’s waterways, including the Great Lakes, present different routes into the country depending on the time of year. In the spring, summer, and fall, terrorists could enter the country by navigating down a river or crossing one of the Great Lakes or one of the lesser bodies of water that separates the United States from Canada. During the winter, many waterways freeze, allowing adversaries the ability to cross by foot or by a vehicle, such as a snowmobile. Then there’s always the land option. “Thickly forested, mountainous areas with recreational trail networks provide avenues and cover for those seeking to cross the border illegally,” CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin told a Senate subcommittee in May. Terrorists could also use a move in drug smugglers’ playbooks and fly across the border at low altitudes in small airplanes or use all-terrain vehicles to cross mud-covered border areas during the spring thaw.

The concern over these different threat vectors is magnified by indications that there are small jihadist communities in Canada, a chief difference between the U.S. northern neighbor and Mexico. According to CBP’s 2008 report to Congress, “There is an undisputed presence in Canada of known terrorist affiliate and extremist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria.”

This concern has also been highlighted by DHS. However, the leaked 2008 Homeland Security Threat Assessment noted that apprehensions of watch-listed individuals along the northern border are rare.

In fact, as a DHS official who spoke on background told Security Management, no watch-listed terrorist operatives have been apprehended on the northern border since 1999. That was when the al Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam was caught at the Port Angeles, Washington, border crossing, trying to enter the country with a trunk packed full of explosives. Ressam, dubbed the Millennium Bomber, planned to attack Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve. Fortunately, Ressam chose to enter where he drew the suspicion of an alert Customs agent.

The next time, however, terrorists might get more adventurous and try to avoid detection by exploiting those spaces in between POEs. That’s where the Border Patrol comes in—in theory. As noted, critics question whether they are being given adequate resources to do the job.

Though border patrol forces on the northern border have grown by 600 percent since 2001, the nearly 2,300 agents can’t really keep watch over the vast northern perimeter. And even when other federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies are factored in, it’s still not enough. “With more than 4,000 miles of land and water between the United States and Canada that must be secured, the lack of an adequate law enforcement presence along the northern border exacerbates the magnitude of this concern,” noted the CBP’s report to Congress.

Despite the threat of terrorism from the north, it is unlikely that the CBP will be given the resources to significantly increase the number of border patrol agents because the perception is still that the patrol officers are more useful on the southern border, where they can help interdict much higher volumes of illicit drugs and illegal immigrants. The current debate over federal spending also makes it unlikely more resources will be allocated.

Leveraging Resources

Given its limited northern resources, the CBP knows that those areas can only be secured if the agency leverages technology and works closely with area law enforcement authorities. “We must rely heavily on state, local, and tribal partners,” says former CBP Commissioner W. Ralph Basham, “which means we need to develop communication and intelligence systems that will allow them to have better and faster information.”

The GAO’s Richard Stana, director of Homeland Security and Justice, agrees. “By having good coordination links and some sort of surveillance capability, you can address the threats that come from the north,” he says.

The agency’s strategy includes having remote agents stationed along the border, using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance, and establishing a northern central command post, based in Detroit, to fuse intelligence data, human resources, and technology from multiple agencies.

Remote presence. The northern border consists of eight CBP sectors, each with a headquarters element that governs the sector’s 51 border patrol stations. The problem is that these 51 stations were established in well-populated areas, leaving many smaller, isolated communities along the northern border with poor coverage. To address that vulnerability, the CBP developed the Resident Agent Program, whereby agents would actually live in some of the remote locations that didn’t have stations.

“Whereas, in the past, the border patrol only rarely patrolled an isolated area, now it has a sustained presence there because of resident agents,” says Brian Pigg, an assistant chief patrol agent out of the Grand Forks Sector.

The agency began the program in September 2009 on a pilot basis in the Grand Forks Sector, which consists of 861 miles that cross the states of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. Under the pilot, 35 resident agents have been assigned to work in 12 remote areas near the border. The choice was partly risk-based but another factor was that “most of the locations are in or near county seats,” says Pigg.

The remote nature of the sites made the program challenging to develop and to implement. “Most of the towns along our border are very small [with] very limited infrastructure,” says Pigg. This meant Grand Forks Sector had to get creative with the program’s design.

First, there was the question of work space. In the interest of keeping the program low-cost, it was decided that resident agents would work out of their own home or apartment in that location. No new stations would be constructed. It was a low-cost solution that enabled the CBP to increase staffing with negligible impact on rural communities.

Another issue was communications. Some of these areas lacked the necessary wireless communications infrastructure. In response, resident agents have been given cellular boosters to address those connectivity issues. Agents also map their territory to learn where wireless hotspots exist so that they can use them to communicate with their supervisors, access CBP systems over their laptops, and transmit reports, says Supervisory Resident Agent Kathy Edwards.

Edwards, based out of Minot, North Dakota, described her resident agents’ job as about “one-third community relations, one-third assisting other agencies, and about a third gathering intelligence and gaining situational awareness from that.”

The benefits of the Resident Agent Program were apparent early on.

“We’ve exposed more communities to the border patrol and provided more education on border security to those communities in addition to just getting out there and patrolling the border and working with other law enforcement agencies.

In his testimony, Senate CBP Commissioner Bersin said “Resident agents are ideally suited for providing the field commanders with an unprecedented level of situational awareness within remote areas of the border.”

A specific example of how the program is working occurred last year in Williston, North Dakota, when Eduardo Moreno-Othon, an illegal Mexican immigrant, applied for a job with three other illegal aliens using fraudulent immigration documents. Finding the documents suspicious, the prospective employer called the Williston Police Department.

The department reached out to resident agents. The agents ran their information through the federal CBP database and determined that they were, in fact, illegal aliens. After taking the four individuals into custody, border patrol discovered that this was not the first time Moreno-Othon had entered the country illegally. He had been deported in 2004 and had been convicted of a felony drug-trafficking offense. He was subsequently convicted of reentering the country as a deported alien. He is currently serving 41 months in federal prison.

“From my perspective, having resident agents embedded in smaller communities along the northern border creates a situation of community policing and close working relationships that results in these sorts of referrals,” said United States Attorney for North Dakota Timothy Purdon, whose office worked the Moreno-Othon case. “Without the Border Patrol folks being out in communities like they are, it would be very difficult to service the entire area from the Grand Forks Sector headquarters, which is over 300 miles from the western border of North Dakota.”

Pigg equates the strategy to community policing. “Placement of resident agents in these locations provides the resident agents with the ability to communicate more easily with the sheriff’s offices, county government, and community leaders,” he says.

And it enhances reporting from residents. “Before, if somebody noticed something suspicious, they would wait to tell the border patrol because they knew they would come around in the next couple of days,” he says. “Now that they know that these agents are available right there in their communities or nearby, they know who to call if they see something suspicious,” he says.

Drones. Another part of the CBP’s northern strategy is the use of drones. Commonly reaching altitudes of 21,000 feet, two unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) now regularly cruise the skies over the northern border watching out for illegal activity. Based out of Grand Forks Air Force Base in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the two Predator Bs patrol approximately 950 miles of northern border between Spokane, Washington, and Lake-of-the-Woods, Minnesota.

The Predator B, first deployed on the northern border in 2009 by CBP’s Office of Air and Marine, can stay aloft for approximately 20 hours during each mission. It’s an ability the CBP’s 52 other fixed-wing and rotary aircraft stationed at the northern border can’t compete with. “These UASs significantly enhance CBP’s situational awareness in areas that are difficult to reach by other operational elements a critical capability in the rugged terrain along the northern border,” CBP Office of Air and Marine Assistant Commissioner Maj. Gen. Michael Kostelnik (ret.) told a House subcommittee this summer.

The Predators come armed with synthetic aperture radar and a high-powered video camera, which the CBP uses to perform reconnaissance and real-time surveillance along the northern border, says Director of Air Operations John Priddy, who heads the CBP’s National Air Security Operations Center-Grand Forks (NASOC).

One of the most important tasks the Predators perform is radar mapping. They use synthetic aperture radar, which generates black-and-white images of the landscape. The images allow CBP agents to identify vehicle marks and help distinguish human tracks—a likely sign of illegal crossings—from animal tracks. Eventually, it is hoped that this will allow CBP to identify problem areas and deploy personnel and resources, such as sensors, accordingly. The idea is that when a sensor goes off, CBP can dispatch a drone overhead, receive real-time situational awareness, and transmit that intelligence to border patrol or other law enforcement partners to craft the appropriate response.

Law enforcement personnel crave situational awareness. They want to know whether they’re responding to 50 illegal migrants crossing the border or 50 armed men trafficking drugs, Priddy notes. “That’s something people don’t realize: this is actually the way to refine asset management or resource allocation and be more efficient,” he explains. And it’s already being done on the Southwest border, where CBP has a fuller intelligence picture that allows the agency to target known smuggling routes.

Along the northern border, the Predators have also been deployed to provide stealth surveillance in support of law enforcement investigations, such as those conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That’s especially helpful when a car can’t follow someone without being noticed.

While drone surveillance has led to arrests, Priddy couldn’t discuss specifics because many of the cases are active.

The CBP is now trying to extend its operational area east over the Great Lakes, which would allow it to provide situational awareness to U.S. Coast Guard partners. Going forward, Priddy says, the goal is to continue doing what they do on a small scale, but extend it farther across the northern border. That desire, however, depends on budget and whether the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates the national airspace, believes the Predators can safely fly over certain areas.

Integration center. Possibly the CBP’s most ambitious attempt to boost situational awareness on the northern border is the Operational Integration Center (OIC), which opened in March at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, a joint Department of Defense and DHS installation about 35 miles north of Detroit. The OIC’s goal is to bring together border security stakeholders, give them access to the latest technology, and “let nature take its course,” says Assistant Commissioner Mark Borkowski of the CBP Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition.

The Detroit sector was chosen for the OIC for two main reasons. First was the sector’s responsibility for the Great Lakes region, which according to a CBP press release, “presents unique border enforcement challenges due to heavy use by recreational boaters in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter, and extensive commercial and transportation infrastructure vulnerable to exploitation.”

A second reason, says Keith Arrington, border patrol liaison to the CBP Office of Public Affairs, was the existing presence of remote video surveillance systems (RVSS) along the sector’s border that the OIC could tap into.

Currently the OIC boasts representatives from all CBP components; the Coast Guard; other DHS agencies; and federal, state, local and Canadian law enforcement agencies. Functioning as one unit, the partners then use a powerful array of technologies to bolster situational awareness around the Detroit sector, principally the areas along the St. Clair River and Lake St. Clair.

Empowering this partnership is a wide array of off-the-shelf, integrated technology. The OIC brings together information feeds, including radar and camera feeds; databases; and remote sensor inputs. Also included are RVSS; and mobile surveillance systems feeds; and video from various POE, tunnel, and local traffic cameras, CBP’s Kostelnik told a House Homeland Security subcommittee in July.

The OIC can also receive video feeds from the agency’s Predator drones, although the UAVs have not been granted the FAA clearance necessary to fly within the OIC’s coverage area yet. “The idea for us,” says Borkowski, “is let’s find a feed for every piece of information we can put in there.”

The OIC was built to achieve “a technology baseline that’s effective, but not overkill,” he says. CBP considers the command center a laboratory for security innovation. Technologies and feeds not valued by operators will be downgraded or discarded; those that prove effective may be used in other sectors.

The OIC’s role in making more informed technology decisions is at least partly a response to the failure of the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet), a CBP program aimed at developing and integrating cutting-edge border surveillance technologies to detect breaches along the Southwest border. Last January, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano canceled the virtual-fence program, a failure that cost taxpayers approximately $1 billion. In that case, there was a broad commitment to unproven technology.

“That’s what we mean by a laboratory,” he says. “[The OIC] will allow the operators to gain experience and tell me what they really want, rather than me trying to guess.”

And finding the appropriate technology for the northern border isn’t an easy task, says former CBP Commissioner Basham. “We know that ground sensors that are deployed on the southern border are challenged on the northern border,” he said, adding that it’s incredibly difficult to find cameras and communications systems that can withstand the northern border’s extreme environments.

But for all the talk of the OIC’s technology, the command center is primarily about cooperation. “And by cooperation, we mean actually getting together, sharing the same information about what’s going on in a particular area, and then working in an integrated way to allocate the totality of the resources that are available, whether those resources belong to Canadians, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, CBP, the Coast Guard, or the local sheriff,” says Borkowski.

Borkowski expects much from this facility in the future. Five years from now, he foresees a hive of activity at the OIC, where technology allows the OIC to push out threat information to law enforcement partners in the area, even if they don’t have a representative in the OIC.

But the real goal is creating the culture of resource sharing, where the distinction between federal, state, local, and Canadian assets dissolves into one law enforcement community. This will happen, he says, when the OIC’s law enforcement representatives cooperatively plan each day together and allocate combined resources like “one big pot of resources.”

Although the OIC is still in its infancy, CBP brass already consider the integration center a success story. “This level of personnel and technology integration and cooperation serves as a model for technology deployments on the northern border,” Kostelnik told members of Congress in July. And because most of the OIC’s capability comes from commercial off-the-shelf technologies, says Arrington, it will be easy to duplicate its functionality in other sectors.

This cooperation, plus the drones and remotely stationed agents, shows that the CBP is concentrating more attention on its northern responsibilities. Even Rep. Miller agrees that CBP and border patrol, especially with the opening of the OIC and the increasing use of border surveillance drones, have begun to plug the vulnerabilities that most concern her. “It looks like everybody knew what we needed to do, and now we’re starting to do it in some areas,” Miller tells Security Management.

“When people say we directed our attention just to the southern border and turned our backs to the northern border, that’s actually not accurate,” says former CBP Commissioner Basham. It’s just that the strategy is different.  Only time will tell whether the agency’s chosen approach is the right one for the region.

Matthew Harwood is an associate editor at Security Management.