Feds Focus on U.S.-Canada Border

The Canadian border is a bit like a neglected sibling whose misbehaving brother gets all the family's attention.

Before Sept. 11, the U.S. Border Patrol had more than 9,000 agents on the U.S.-Mexico line. Fewer than 400 patrolled the Canadian border, which at about 4,000 miles, is more than twice as long. But one of the enduring lessons from the terror attacks is that Osama bin Laden was targeting the American economy as much as the Pentagon and the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

For that reason, the federal agencies responsible for America's borders — the Customs Service, the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard — have focused new attention and resources on safeguarding the long neglected northern border. Indeed, Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner said, "Right after the attacks, the No. 1 priority of the U.S. Customs Service became the terrorist threat."

Nowhere is that more evident than at the Ambassador Bridge, a privately owned span that connects Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, home to the big three automakers. On average, 5,000 trucks a day, many of them loaded with auto parts, roll across the Ambassador Bridge, making it the busiest commercial border crossing in North America.The trade that crosses it exceeds all of America's commerce with China.

For that reason, federal agencies and trade experts fear the bridge is an inviting target for terrorism.

"If you want to take on the United States, you won't do it by going toe-to-toe with American forces," said Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The way you do it is try to weaken our soft underbelly, which is our dependency on being a globally engaged, commercial society, and that's what gives me great cause and concern."

The Lookout

The Customs Service and the Border Patrol have beefed up their operations here, adding more manpower and equipment. National Guardsmen remain on active duty, assisting with the added inspections of cars and trucks. Since it is physically impossible to inspect every vehicle without shutting down the interstate system, the Customs Service conducts inspections based on targeting "anomalies" among drivers, vehicles and cargo.

Roughly one in three trucks receives a quick, on-the-spot check of its cargo compartments. Those trucks deemed worthy of a closer look are sent to another line to be scanned by a device known as "VACIS," or vehicle and cargo inspection system. The VACIS machines bounce gamma rays off the contents of trucks, providing inspectors with scanned images that look much like ordinary X-rays.

Customs agents select an even smaller group of trucks, about 2 percent, to have their trailers unloaded and inspected item by item.

One such truck was recently sidelined for nearly an entire day because its load of nut butter originated in Togo and the Netherlands, countries 3,000 miles apart. To Customs inspectors, that was an "anomaly" that deserved fuller investigation. It turned out that the same food company in Jackson, Mich., had indeed ordered nut butter from suppliers in the two countries, and the truck was allowed to go on its way.

On the same day, another truck hauling Australian beer was searched because its driver was Algerian. The Customs Service avoids the word "profiling," but a spokesperson concedes certain drivers are "targeted" based on their nationalities. In December 1999, Customs agents apprehended Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian with ties to bin Laden's al Qaeda network, along the border with Washington state. Ressam had planned to blow up Los Angeles International Airport; he was arrested with more than 130 pounds of explosives in the trunk of his car.

The new aggressiveness at the Canadian border here has paid off in some unexpected dividends. VACIS inspections have turned up major quantities of drugs, including marijuana and Ecstasy, hidden in the body panels of cars. In fact, Bill Wisman, chief inspector for U.S. Customs at the Ambassador Bridge, says "significant" drug seizures have increased 188 percent in the first five months of this fiscal year.

People, Drugs, Cargo

The U.S. Border Patrol in Detroit, responsible for patrolling more than 1,300 miles along the Canadian border, has more than doubled its staff from the 38 agents who were on duty before Sept. 11. On a recent evening, ABCNEWS traveled with agents patrolling the St. Clair River, which divides the two countries north of Detroit. Smugglers have long plied this route because a trip from one country to the other takes just minutes by boat.

That night, the Border Patrol arrested six Chinese illegal immigrants who had just been smuggled across from the Canadian side. Border Patrol Agent Jim Crawford described a "sophisticated" smuggling operation, based in Canada, that regularly sneaks illegal immigrants, particularly Chinese, into the United States.

Trade experts, such as Flynn, worry that terrorists can exploit what criminals already know about the vulnerabilities of the U.S.-Canadian border.

"We have a $12 billion-a-year cargo theft industry, we have narcotics that are smuggled through, we have people smuggled through. The bad guys know how open the system is, the good guys don't," Flynn said. "We have been fortunate that terrorists haven't exploited the system yet."