Saturday, April 09, 2005

Canadian border a back door for terrorists?

Washington Times

By Shaun Waterman
UPI Homeland and National Security Editor

Washington, DC, Apr. 7 (UPI) -- The very same day as the announcement that Canadians, along with U.S. citizens, will have to show their passports to cross the border into the United States, Canada's auditor general reported that the Canadian Passport Office was ill-equipped to detect fraudulent or unqualified applications.

In a report to the Ottawa parliament delivered Tuesday, Sheila Fraser, the Canadian government's top watchdog, said that the office "was not meeting current security expectations for issuing passports."

Officials processing applications, she said, often did not have the training or equipment to spot forged or fraudulent documents, and there were widespread examples of unauthorized access to the computer system that issued passports.

Fraser told United Press International in an interview Thursday that the problems are "serious" and especially disturbing because "a lot of faith is put in a passport. ... It is one of the few documents that actually establish your identity."

Fraser's report highlights what many U.S. counter-terrorism and security officials have long seen as a largely un-remarked vulnerability: the country's border with Canada.

Officials say that while the terrain on the southern border with Mexico is easier to traverse and is regularly crossed by those seeking to enter the country illegally, the northern border represents something of a back door for would-be terrorists.

A Department of Homeland Security official, who is not authorized to speak to the press and who asked for anonymity, pointed out that no operational cells of Islamic extremists have been discovered in Mexico -- though he cautioned "It is possible that they are there" -- whereas Canada has historically been regarded as a destination of choice for terrorists.

"Intelligence reports indicate that terrorist groups locate in Canada in part because of Canada's liberal visa and asylum laws and the country's proximity to the United States," the then-Inspector General of the Justice Department Michael Bromwich told Congress in 1999.

Despite this, it is the border with Mexico that has gotten the lion's share of attention, says Janice Kephart, the Sept. 11 Commission counsel responsible for reviewing immigration and border issues. "It's not that we pay too much attention to the southern border, but we don't pay enough attention to the northern border," she told UPI.

"The approach needs to be comprehensive, or everything we do is just a temporary Band-Aid."

The homeland security official agreed. "Less attention has been given by the media and the public to the northern border," the official said. "You don't have the political hot-button issue" of illegal immigration, and "You don't see the big drug seizures there."

Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security proposed new rules that would mean -- by the end of 2007 -- all those entering or re-entering the United States from Mexico, Canada and the rest of the Americas will have to show a passport or "other secure document" to be admitted.

Currently, U.S. citizens and most Canadian nationals can present a wide variety of identity documents to gain admittance, something that the Sept. 11 Commission identified as a serious vulnerability.

Kephart praises the proposed new rules. "This is just the type of change I had hoped for -- verifying and authenticating identities on our borders," she said, adding that officials had set themselves an ambitious deadline.

"It's a pretty tight timetable," she told UPI.

But Fraser's report suggests that insisting Canadian visitors show passports will not be a panacea.

The first examination of passport security by the Canadian auditor general -- the counterpart to the U.S. Government Accountability Office -- found a range of problems that would make it possible for fraudulent or bogus applicants to be issued Canadian passports.

Fraser told UPI that "some of the weaknesses we found were pretty basic."

For instance, potentially hundreds of employees not authorized to issue passports -- including failed internal applicants for such posts and clerical workers -- had access to the system that issued them.

"It only takes one person," she pointed out, to issue passports to those not entitled for the integrity of the whole system to be jeopardized.

"The system should be designed so that only people are actually authorized to issue passports can do so," Fraser said. "These are not difficult things to get right."

Officials sometimes lacked training in how to spot forged birth certificates, and most were not even provided with basic equipment like a magnifying glass, Fraser found.

Moreover, there was no way to electronically check birth certificates with the local authorities that issued them to make sure the documents were genuine.

"If there were electronic links," Fraser told UPI, "It would ... get around the problem of forgeries."

The question is not simply an academic one. The would-be millennium bomber, Ahmed Ressam, used a forged birth certificate to obtain a passport in the name of Benni Norris, which he then used in his failed December 1999 attempt to enter the United States and bomb the Los Angeles airport.
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