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U.S. border czar pitches ‘thinner’ border for low-risk traffic

On the eve of a perimeter security deal between Ottawa and Washington, the top U.S. customs official is championing the idea of a "thinner" border for low-risk traffic as he seeks to reassure Canadians he understands what they want from the controversial agreement.

Alan Bersin, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, says he wants to make it easier for legitimate travellers and cargo to enter the United States so both countries can focus on high-risk traffic instead.

He said under the deal Canada and the U.S. would exchange information on risky travellers and cargo, but not on all traffic. "It's not to willy-nilly share data that would violate notions of privacy and civil liberties … but to share alerts and alarms that are being raised," he said.

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The U.S. border czar was in Ottawa on Monday as the clock ticks down on an announcement of the "action plan" for the Canada-U.S. perimeter deal to ease trade and travel between the two countries after a decade of thickening security measures.

Mr. Bersin met with the heads of the Canada Border Service Agency and the RCMP Monday and then with business groups. He appears to be practising the message that Washington will deliver when the perimeter deal's details are announced in the days or weeks ahead, and he'll be meeting with business groups in Toronto and Montreal as well.

"The message I hope to be helping spread during this trip is that the old dichotomy between the promotion of trade and heightening of security … is a false choice," he said.

Ottawa and Washington are hoping that business groups will cheer the deal that is expected to see Canada co-operate more closely with the U.S. on security screening – including information-sharing – in return for speedier travel across the shared border.

Mr. Bersin said Canada and the U.S. need to look at efforts such as joint inspection of foreign cargo where "cargo coming from Antwerp would be analyzed by both countries in tandem," along with an information management system that shares alerts.

"The notion that in order to obtain an incremental growth in your security you need to slow down the trade is actually a wrong way of viewing it in the world in which 97 per cent to 98 per cent of the traffic – or more – is perfectly legitimate and lawful," he said.

Mr. Bersin said he thinks the United States needs to find ways of expediting low-risk cargo and travellers to focus resources on high-risk traffic. "By thinning out the border, by moving and expediting lawful trade and travel, you actually enhance your security profile," he said.

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He wants to get more serious about pre-clearing cargo and people before they hit the border. Canadian shippers currently complain they use pre-clearance inspections in an attempt to speed up their transit time, only to find their cargo being double-checked at the border.

The U.S. border czar played down May 2011 remarks to the U.S. Senate where he said when it comes to the threat of terrorism, the Canadian border is a bigger problem than the Mexican one. He'd complained during testimony about how Ottawa and Washington don't share their no-fly lists, for instance – an exchange that might flag security threats about travellers arriving in Canada and then trying to enter the U.S. by land.

He said the media took his remarks "out of context," and what he was trying to say is "there was insufficient information sharing not generally but with regard to high-risk cargo and high-risk persons" – a problem he said the pending deal attempts to resolve.

Jayson Myers, president of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, called Mr. Bersin's "thinning the border" comments a refreshing change of language that gives hope to Canadian businesses selling to the United States. He said the language is relatively new for the Americans.

"It's very much in line with what the Canadian government has been saying," he said. "To have the Customs and Border Protection commissioner talking about the importance of an efficient border as well as secure border is a major step ahead."

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks in the United States, Canada has fought a constant battle to convince the Americans that bilateral commerce needs to be protected from the ever-expanding U.S. security clampdown that is clogging trade with new rules and procedures. Increasing border controls, for instance, in recent years have forced companies to abandon just-in-time shipping and stockpile goods to reduce the risks of transaction delays in cross-border trade.

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