At a border conference in Washington, DC, on Monday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was giving an interview to the CBC’s Neil Macdonald when she upset Canadian government officials by seeming to reinforce the false story that 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. through Canada.
The former Arizona governor was asked by Macdonald why there was a "need for same level of security on the Canadian border as on the Mexican border given two drastically different realities?"
Responded Napolitano, "the law says the borders are the borders and these are the kind of things that have to be done at the borders." She added that "Canada is not Mexico, it doesn’t have a drug war going on, it didn’t have 6,000 homicides that were drug-related last year. Nonetheless, to the extent that terrorists have come into our country or suspected or known terrorists have entered our country across a border, it’s been across the Canadian border. There are real issues there."
Asked Macdonald: "Are you talking about the 9/11 perpetrators?"
"Not just those but others as well," Napolitano said.
But the 9/11 perpetrators did not come into the US from across the Canadian border.
Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Wilson Tuesday told reporters that "unfortunately, misconceptions arise on something as fundamental as where the 9-11 terrorists came from."
Wilson said that "as the 9/11 Commission reported in 2004, all of the 9/11 terrorists arrived in the United States from outside North America. They flew to major U.S. airports. They entered the U.S. with documents issued by the United States government and no 9/11 terrorists came from Canada."
Napolitano quickly put out a statement explaining that she had misunderstood what Macdonald was asking.
"I know that the September 11th hijackers did not come through Canada to the United States," Napolitano underlined. "There are other instances, however when suspected terrorists attempted to enter our country from Canada to the United States. Some of these are well known to the public – such as the Millennium Bomber – while others are not due to security reasons."
Napolitano is hardly the first US politician to walk this path. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., told Fox News Channel’s Hannity & Colmes in 2005 that "far more of the 9/11 terrorists came across from Canada than from Mexico." Gingrich later apologized to the Canadian Ambassador.
That same year, former Sen. Senator Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said that "we have people who farm both sides of the border. So it’s very porous. We’ve got to remember that the people who first hit us in 9/11 entered this country through Canada."
A spokesman for the Canadian embassy told the Washington Post that year in a story about the strength of the urban myth, that it all began with stories in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald from September 13, 2001, reporting that investigators were seeking evidence that the hijackers came from the Great White North.
Ambassador Wilson said Tuesday that "the comment from her people is that she (Napolitano) misunderstood" the question. But clearly he was concerned.
"We’ve been in touch with her office a few times this morning and there’s no question in my mind she does not believe any terrorists came from Canada into the United States," Wilson said.
Peter Van Loan, Canada’s public safety minister, backed up his American counterpart, saying he was sure she knew the 9/11 hijackers did not enter the US through Canada.
"We spoke about it back in March," Van Loan told CTV. "And we were sharing a chuckle at the fact that the urban myth does circulate. Ms. Napolitano understood quite clearly, then and now, that none of the September 11 terrorists came through Canada, as the 9/11 Commission found."
But other friends from the North were less chuckley.
Canadian Council of Chief Executives president and chief executive Thomas d’Aquino said in a statement, "I am a longstanding friend and ally of the United States, but sometimes failures in our two-way dialogue cause me to shake my head in sadness and dismay. The claim that some of the 9/11 terrorists entered the United States from Canada is, quite simply, a myth – an urban legend that began with a handful of erroneous media reports in the days following the terrorist strikes. …Again and again, Canadian and American authorities have sought to correct the record. It is long past time to put this particular urban legend to rest."
William Elliot, Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, told the Toronto Star, "my initial reaction frankly is I was a little bit surprised and somewhat disappointed that the secretary isn’t better informed."
Added Wilson of the myth, "it comes frequently from members of Congress. These are people who should know the difference; forget sometimes. It’s frustrating to us because we have to address it every time that matter comes up."