The new US northern border strategy fails to mention previous and ongoing joint border security initiatives with Canada, writes Scott Newark. Hopefully this does not mean a more unilateral “strategy” is now in the offing.

By Scott Newark, July 19, 2018

Late last month, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released its US Northern Border Strategy. This report was required pursuant to the Northern Border Security Review Act, which was passed by Congress in December 2016 and signed into law by then President Barack Obama in his final days in office. The Act had bipartisan support and a defined goal – to assess and strengthen security at the US border with Canada.

Given the fact of our shared border, this Report is of great relevance for Canadians. Co-ordination of border security operations and trade and traveler facilitation have been an increased priority since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and there have been significant positive developments with ongoing and planned initiatives as well. In the government’s recent cabinet shuffle, a new Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction was even announced – an indication on the growing salience of this issue. We need to assess how this latest US report reflects the joint Canada-US approach to the border.

Strangely, the Northern Border Security Review Act requires DHS to provide the Report to specified Congressional Committees within 180 days of its passage but does not appear to create an ongoing obligation for such analysis and reporting. Despite this, DHS produced its first Report in August 2017 and this latest report ten months later. This year’s Report confirms that going forward, DHS will review and update the Northern Border Strategy every five years. This is a welcome change as it should support substantive analysis rather than reporting itself as the metric of success.

The Report identifies three specific Goals which include: Enhance Border Security Operations; Facilitate and Safeguard Lawful Trade and Travel; and Promote Cross-border Resilience

Each Goal has specific Objectives, which are identified to help achieve the Goals to which they relate. The Strategy also specifically identifies “Partnerships and Implementation” as subject areas to be addressed and notes that “DHS will engage with other federal departments and agencies, as well as with key state, local, tribal, and Canadian partners to implement this Strategy.”

DHS also commits to developing a Northern Border Strategy Implementation Plan, which will outline DHS roles, responsibilities, programs, and timelines for accomplishing the Strategy’s goals for fiscal years (FYs) 2020-2024. DHS will provide annual progress reports regarding the implementation of this Strategy. (pp.8-9)

The Report correctly identifies the unique challenges of the Canada-US border, which it confirms requires tailored application of security measures along the full length of the border. It specifically notes the potential security threat to the US resulting from the vast and unsupervised terrain between ports of entry. Like the Beyond the Border Agreement, it confirms that sensor technology can play an important role in locations where full-time deployment of enforcement personnel is not practical and intelligence led mobile interdiction and enforcement units are necessary.

The Report identifies the bi-directional flow of illicit drugs as the most common threat to US public safety and reports specifically that cocaine and methamphetamine move north into Canada after transiting the United States from Mexico, while fentanyl, marijuana, and ecstasy flow south from Canada into the United States. Transnational criminal organizations are described as being involved in this cross-border drug smuggling, which exploits the vast marine border and potentially entails low flying aircraft to avoid radar detection.

The Report identifies the bi-directional flow of illicit drugs as the most common threat to US public safety.

Potential terror threats are reported as being from homegrown violent extremists in Canada who are not known to the US and could therefore enter the United States legally at ports of entry. The Report does not specifically note that the port of entry vulnerabilities and the organized criminal cross border smuggling activities also enhance the terrorist illegal entry threat which needs to be addressed jointly.

The DHS Report identifies the following objectives to enhance border security operations, which are directly relevant to Canadian border security operations.

  • Objective 1 – Exchange timely and actionable information and intelligence on cross-border terrorism and illicit activities with federal, state, local, tribal, and international partners.
  • Objective 2 – Improve coordination, integration, and analysis across domestic and international domain surveillance and information-sharing systems.
  • Objective 3 – Use intelligence, risk assessments, and capability gap assessments to inform placement of surveillance and detection assets and resources.
  • Objective 4 – Promote and improve integrated operations to identify, interdict, investigate, and disrupt terrorist and other illicit cross-border activities.

The Report also includes specific Goals to facilitate and safeguard lawful trade and travel including cross-border collaboration, safeguarding secure transportation networks, promoting Trusted Traveler and prescreening programs and enhancing inspection and screening capabilities and technologies to enable rapid processing of travelers.

The Report’s third Goal is promoting “Cross-border Resilience,” which entails enhancing cross-border, multi-sectoral emergency communication capabilities, enhancing cross-border response and recovery capabilities, and protecting and enhancing the security and resilience of critical infrastructure through improved threat and risk awareness, vulnerability reduction, and hazard mitigation.

Finally, the Report contains a number of Objectives of “special interest” which are operationally focused and directly relevant for Canada. These include:

  • Develop and maintain bilateral intelligence consultations and share finished intelligence products on border security threats to enhance shared understanding of the current and future threat environment.
  • Expand participation in collaborative efforts such as joint fusion centers and task forces with federal, state, local, tribal, and international partners to promote coordinated, efficient border operations.
  • Expand private sector information-sharing partnerships to improve data sharing of critical need-to-know information, including vulnerabilities and emerging threats.
  • Enhance tactical information-sharing programs among federal, state, local, tribal, and international partners.
  • Improve air, maritime, and land domain sensor integration and analysis at and between point of entries along the Northern Border.
  • Improve database integration and analysis.
  • Establish functional evaluation processes to continually assess DHS domain surveillance and information sharing and provide recommendations for improvement.
  • Quantitatively assess and prioritize the relative risks associated with areas along the Northern Border.
  • Support efforts to jointly catalogue existing US-Canadian surveillance capabilities along the Northern Border to identify, prioritize, and mitigate coverage gaps.
  • Enhance surveillance and detection technologies through integrated research, development, and innovation programs.
  • Develop intelligence-driven, targeted operations in the inbound and outbound environment that focus on current threat analysis.
  • Develop a coordinated vision with federal, state, local, tribal, international, and private sector partners for the continued stewardship of shared waterways and key transportation networks.
  • Enable safe, efficient, and resilient navigation on Northern Border waterways through the development and execution of regulatory regimes and waterways management.
  • Develop, coordinate, and conduct small vessel and recreational boater detection, identification, and screening programs.
  • Procure and deploy personnel, resources, and technology to meet Northern Border mission requirements.
  • Conduct structural and operational vulnerability assessments on Northern Border region critical infrastructure priorities.
  • Collaborate with multi-sectoral and international partners to implement mitigation measures to address identified vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure.

This Report does contain a number of Goals and Objectives that are definitely relevant for Canada. Yet one important omission is that it largely ignores previous and ongoing joint Canada-US border security initiatives, including the 2011 Beyond the Border Agreement and Action Plan, the cross-border enforcement Shiprider program, legislation to expand the Exit-Entry information sharing program and expanded Pre Border Clearance, as well as different ongoing marine domain awareness enhancement programs, which are especially relevant for intelligence-led enforcement between designated ports of entry.

Inexplicably, the Report also does not mention a significant failure to achieve an identified Beyond the Border Agreement initiative which required a joint Canada-US technology procurement and deployment plan to enhance border domain awareness to address jointly identified gaps and vulnerabilities. While the vulnerability analysis was completed on time, the joint technology procurement and deployment plan expected to occur by April 30, 2013 was never achieved. Does the omission of this critical issue in the US Report now mean that the Americans have abandoned that commitment?

Inexplicably, the Report also does not mention a significant failure to achieve an identified Beyond the Border Agreement initiative.

Additionally, the Report fails to even mention the current situation (since January 2017) of thousands of persons deliberately entering Canada between ports of entry, and thus illegally, from the United States to thereafter claim refugee status. Inasmuch as almost all of these people are released from custody without ongoing monitoring, this represents a potential security concern for both countries.

Data has also now confirmed that over half of the 27,000 illegal entrants were persons that were inappropriately granted visas by US authorities as their clear purpose was to illegally enter Canada and claim refugee status. Ironically, this visa screening deficiency is a violation of the commitment made by the US in the Beyond the Border Agreement to ensure enhanced "perimeter security.”

It is alarming that a DHS Report on the US Northern Border Strategy could fail to even mention this ongoing situation and the need for both countries to work together to address it. This includes modernizing the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement, which is the source of the “gap” being exploited. Given the outrage being demonstrated by the Trump administration over persons illegally entering the US from Mexico, this omission is inexplicable and unacceptable.

The Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated its rejection of international collaboration in matters of trade, the environment and foreign policy. Hopefully, this kind of unilateral “strategy” is not now being manifested in the DHS Northern Border Strategy because the consequences of such a change will be counter-productive…for both countries.

Scott Newark is a former Alberta Crown Prosecutor who has also served as Executive Officer of the Canadian Police Association, Vice Chair of the Ontario Office for Victims of Crime, Director of Operations for Investigative Project on Terrorism and as a Security Policy Advisor to the governments of Ontario and Canada. He is currently an Adjunct Professor in the TRSS Program in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University.

(Image credit: Transport Canada)