Complaining that the last line of defence against terrorist infiltrations from Canada is often a rubber cone on a lonely country road, members of the U.S. Congress pleaded with the Bush administration yesterday to shore up the 6,500-kilometre border.
Even as U.S. politicians called for a tighter border, Canadian Revenue Minister Martin Cauchon said he wants to pass his new customs bill within a month so that he can speed up planned reforms, including security measures such as having airlines provide passenger lists to customs officers before flights take off.
Mr. Cauchon said the reforms must be quickened to deal with concerns raised since Sept. 11, and he suggested they will both increase confidence in Canadian security and keep trade flowing.
"As soon as I get [Bill]S-23, I want to speed up the reforms," he told a Commons committee. "Really, we are going to have to speed up the enactment of that reform.'
At a congressional hearing in Washington yesterday, North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, holding up one of the bright orange rubber cones, called it a symbol of lax security and years of neglect along the Canadian-U.S. border.
"An orange cone is not security," said Mr. Dorgan, who is the Democratic chairman of the Senate Treasury Appropriations subcommittee.
"It is certainly not a secret to terrorists that if you are going to go through a border in this country, it would be much easier to go through a border that's only protected by an orange rubber cone at 11 o'clock at night than going through a border where you have rigorous inspection. . . . You can't have a secure border unless all of your borders are secure."
Mr. Dorgan noted that dozens of remote border points across the northern border -- 14 in North Dakota alone -- are left unmanned after 10:00 p.m., providing an open invitation to would-be terrorists.
"The nice ones put the cones back after driving through," he chided during a hearing on the northern border.
Heads of the U.S. agencies responsible for border security acknowledged that their forces are stretched thin on the northern border, particularly since the Sept. 11 attacks.
But the commissioners of both the U.S. Customs Service and U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service testified that they have redeployed hundreds of agents, cancelled staff leaves and maintained the highest level of alert on the northern border since Sept. 11.
"We will continue to explore other options to strengthen security along our northern border," Customs commissioner Robert Bonner said.
INS commissioner James Ziglar praised the level of co-operation with Canadian customs officials, but conceded: "There is plenty of room for improvement."
It's far from clear how tighter security might have prevented the attacks. U.S. officials have refused to say whether any of the 19 suspected hijackers entered the United States from Canada. Most are believed to have lived in the United States legally for months and even years, after entering from Europe and the Middle East.
Canadian officials say they have no information that any of the hijackers entered the United States from Canada.
Still, the U.S. pressure has raised a chill in Canada, notably from business groups who fear access to U.S. markets will be impaired. Many have backed U.S. calls for a North American perimeter, which would see security increase at airports and seaports, but streamlined at the land border.
Yesterday, Mr. Cauchon not only acknowledged that new emphasis will have to be placed on security at airports and seaports, but also said the government must move quickly to speed up reforms after the attacks.
The reforms, outlined in a five-year plan released 18 months ago, will increase confidence in security and ease trade flows, he said. He told reporters he believes the bill should be passed within a month so he can "put the whole reform in motion and accelerate the process."
The planned customs reforms include speeding up passage for some travellers and goods carriers, so that security checks can be concentrated in high-risk areas.
Business groups have already begun pressuring the Canadian government to move to reassure Americans on security to keep the border open.
A broad alliance of trade-dependent Canadian businesses yesterday formed a coalition to lobby Ottawa for a common North American security perimeter that doesn't impede commerce between Canada and the United States.
"We do a million dollars of [cross-border]business a minute," said Perrin Beatty, chief executive officer of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association, which is helping spearhead the alliance.
The Coalition for a Secure and Trade-Efficient Border has not yet drawn up official policies but is already floating ideas to expedite north-south trade without sacrificing security.
Suggestions include locating truck-inspection yards well in advance of border checkpoints so that goods can be inspected without creating big line-ups; stationing Canadian customs officials at foreign airports to pre-clear Canada-bound passengers; and placing Canadian and U.S. inspectors on opposite sides of the border to speed up processing of shipments.
The business coalition is working on official recommendations to give to Ottawa before Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley meets with the new U.S. Homeland Security Office director Tom Ridge next month.