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US-Canada: Guarding northern border

More people, high tech on the watch

Associated Press, September 15, 2006

They come across in small airplanes and on foot, astride horses and atop snowmobiles. They hike and float and ski and dog-sled their way out of Canada and across Montana's northern border, often smuggling drugs or people.

Sometimes they are caught. Sometimes not.

''What we do is one of the toughest jobs in the world,'' said Lonnie Moore, information officer for the Spokane Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol. ''I believe we catch most of them, but we're not naive enough to think it's 100 percent. There's always room to improve.''

Five years after the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, America's northern border is, by most measures, much more secure than at any time before. It is not, however, secure in any definitive way, and the real question in this post-Sept. 11 world is, how safe is safe enough?

That's what Mike Meehan's wondering, anyway, from behind his desk at the Flathead County sheriff's office.

''Personally, I feel secure with the system that's now in place,'' he said. ''I'm certainly not going to go home tonight and worry about a bunch of terrorists coming across the border.''

What Meehan does worry about is high-grade marijuana coming south from British Columbia -- ''B.C. bud,'' as it's known.

Smuggling is a lucrative business, Meehan said, with B.C. bud commanding prices in excess of $5,000 per pound in the northern states, and as much as $8,000 a pound by the time it makes its way south to California.

And Montana's northern border is an attractive route, what with all that wild and rugged expanse rambling across uninhabited mountain valleys. There are big transboundary lakes, which Meehan notes are notoriously difficult to control.

''In a lot of those areas, there just isn't much population,'' Moore said.

His Border Patrol sector covers a whole lot of big empty, from Washington's snow-capped Cascades all the way to the Continental Divide. In 2002, just 40 people patrolled all those miles of border. In fact, a mere 300 worked the entire northern border, coast to coast, compared with 9,000 on the nation's southern border.

Sept. 11, 2001, changed all that.

''We've tripled in manpower up here,'' Moore said. ''We now have seven-day-a-week, 24-hour coverage, which wasn't always the case before.''

But the real key to the 24/7 coverage is not manpower, but technology.

There are motion detectors in the woods these days, infrared cameras, heat sensors, magnetic detectors -- and a lot more high-tech infrastructure no one is authorized to talk about.

''The magnetic detectors seemed to work the best,'' said Meehan. Bears trigger motion sensors, and lots of critters trip the heat sensors -- but not many elk are wearing belt buckles.

''Things have improved,'' Meehan said of border security. ''There are a lot more agents up there, and a lot more monitoring devices.''

Measuring what ''better'' means -- and how wisely tax dollars are spent on border security -- is a very slippery business. Last year, Moore said, agents in his sector apprehended about 120 people crossing the border illegally. That's a lot, but not that many more than in previous years.

The threefold increase in agents and budgets seems not to have translated into a threefold increase in apprehensions, and all admit some illegals continue to slip through. At the same time, fewer apprehensions may, in fact, be associated with more patrols, as presence deters activity.

So, back to Meehan's question: How safe is safe enough?

The Canadian border, according to Meehan, will always be somewhat porous.

But the reason he doesn't lose any sleep is because intelligence-gathering has been stepped up considerably. Agents often know what to look for, where and when, thanks to information-sharing between agencies and countries.

''It's kind of a free-flow association of information, and it actually works very well in practice,'' said Jim Bunner, supervisor at the Whitefish office of the Border Patrol.

You don't need to monitor every inch of backwoods, Moore agreed, if you have a solid intelligence network. Sure, a few lone pot smokers might make it through, but there's security adequate now to weave a web tight enough for the bigger flies.

''If there have been any terrorists caught up on this border, then I sure haven't heard about it,'' Meehan said.

Instead, those running the border -- aside from the ''mules'' carrying B.C. bud -- tend to be South Koreans, many of them young women between 18 and 25. Whether they know it or not, he said, they're often headed to work as prostitutes in major metropolitan areas.

The reason, Moore said, is Canada does not require an entry visa for South Korean visitors. And once in Canada, it's a short trip across the northern border to the United States.

''We pick up a group of Koreans about every couple months,'' Moore said.

To slow the flow, Moore said, the Border Patrol is stressing ''citizens' academies,'' special classes that teach everyday folk how to help federal agents.

''All these people in these little towns, they know what's going on,'' he said. ''The smallness of the towns along the border here is a huge help to us.''

So is the cooperative relationship between the Border Patrol, local sheriff's offices, Forest Service law enforcement and agents investigating illegal immigration.

The effort may soon be augmented by a new air and marine branch, complete with planes and boats supplied by Customs and Border Protection. Two years ago, a similar branch opened in the Seattle area with 69 officers, pilots, aircrew and mission support personnel, along with helicopters, airplanes and boats.

A branch has now been proposed for Montana, but Moore could not say when it might open for business. When it does, however, it's likely to put a dent in the latest smuggling scheme -- float planes full of B.C. bud, traveling south to land on remote waterways.

''It's like a game,'' Moore said. ''They adjust, we re-adjust.''