The U.S. plans to beef up surveillance on the B.C.-Washington border beginning this week to counter what it sees as the threat of terrorism, illegal migration and smuggling of weapons and drugs such as marijuana.
"Intelligence indicates there is a threat up there [in Canada] that needs to be responded to, so we're providing the air and marine capability to respond to that, in support of both U.S. and Canadian authorities," Gary Bracken, communications director for the U.S. Office of Air and Marine Operations, said Tuesday from Washington, D.C.
He said additional U.S. helicopters, a fixed-wing aircraft and two marine units would scan an area within a 400-kilometre radius of the Bellingham, Wash. airport, which is 25 kilometres south of the Canadian border.
But it's not clear if that would allow U.S. aircraft deep into Canadian airspace -- as far north as Williams Lake, as far east as Creston in the Kootenays and to the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. Canadian military officials who deal with strategic issues could not be reached for comment late Tuesday night.
Based at Bellingham airport, the Washington state unit, the first of five surveillance points on the U.S.-Canada border, will eventually include about 55 staff.
Bracken said the initiative is part of America's first northern border branch of air and marine operations.
He said the unit will share a Black Hawk helicopter and other equipment with similar units on the U.S. southern border, until the northern branch becomes fully operational with its own equipment.
An official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said there is no plan to have weapons on the Black Hawk, which the U.S. Army describes as a utility tactical transport helicopter.
The air and marine unit will work closely with border patrol and other agencies to provide support and reinforcement, but will also act as an investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"We're kind of like an extra cop on the beat, if you will," Bracken said.
"We're providing support across a wide range of agencies and using our expertise that we've built on the southern border and we're bringing that capability to the northern border."
Bracken said the 400-kilometre radius from Bellingham is a rough guideline of how far the aircraft and boats might venture during a surveillance or investigative mission.
A second northern border air and marine unit is scheduled to begin operations in October in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Similar units will eventually be established at borders in Montana, North Dakota and Michigan.
Bracken said the Washington-B.C. border was chosen first for a variety of reasons, including the 1999 arrest of Ahmed Ressam, caught trying to smuggle explosives into the U.S. on a ferry from Victoria to Port Angeles.
Ressam was convicted in 2001 of nine charges connected to a bomb plot, possibly aimed at Los Angeles airport, that caused the cancellation of Seattle's millennium celebrations.
Bracken also said security threats include "activity with B.C. bud [marijuana]," illegal migrants, and the flow of money and weapons into Canada.
Joe Giuliano, assistant chief of border patrol operations based in Blaine, Wash., noted that northern Washington has had an air operations unit for about 30 years, and the border patrol has two of its own boats in coastal waters.
Giuliano said he is not yet sure how the additional equipment and personnel will help his division. But he is optimistic the two agencies can work together.
"Exactly what an air and marine operation that's under someone else's auspices will bring to us remains to be seen, but we're hopeful there will be a meaningful interaction," he said.
"What they can bring us depends not only on what assets they have on the ground, but what sort of funding they'll have in place to operate those, what sort of staffing will come with that. Again, we're very hopeful, but it's just something we'll have to see how it fleshes out."
Giuliano's border patrol unit already includes a Cessna aircraft and a helicopter, but he said it differs from the new unit in a few ways.
Giuliano said the new unit will have more powerful equipment, which will be able to follow aircraft to investigate smuggling operations in the sky, rather than just focusing on the ground.
And, Giuliano said, the unit's equipment will be harder to identify than the border patrol's marked cars, boats, and aircraft.
"Of course, we have no way, as border patrol, of chasing an airplane, but they would be able to conduct a surveillance on that and be able to do covert operations, whereas we operate with highly visible marked aircraft and boats," Giuliano said.
"It's kind of like in a police department -- we're the uniformed guys and they're the detectives."
In the past few years, the "uniformed guys" have had significant successes in apprehending and deterring illegal migrants, and catching southbound shipments of marijuana.
Giuliano said the patrol's increased presence and the addition of 32 cameras along the B.C.-Washington border in 2002 have helped deter illegal crossings, bringing the number of people apprehended down from more than 2,500 in 2000 to 1,402 last year.
Border guards and police have also been intercepting more marijuana each year, discovering a record 2,100 kilograms of the drug last year that was being smuggled between ports of entry from the coast to the Cascade Mountains, Giuliano said.
But whether drugs, people or weapons are intercepted at the border, Giuliano said all have to be treated on the same threat level.
"We don't see one as being more dangerous than the others," he said. "It's the one guy with the right gear and the wrong attitude that's going to cause a problem."
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