As the international investigation continues into the case of Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian-born Montrealer who tried to enter Washington with a carload of explosives in mid-December, the question of whether Canada is soft on potential terrorists refuses to go away.
The United States controls its border with Canada much less strictly than it does its border with Mexico, and in two high-profile cases of potential terrorism - Mr. Ressam's case and one involving a planned attack on the New York City subway in 1994 - the perpetrators sought or gained entry into the US via Canada.
Canadians are worried that efforts by the US to "harden" its northern border will slow traffic to a crawl, causing hardships for legitimate travelers and goods.
To head this off, Ottawa officials are trying to interest Washington in a new concept of "perimeter security," as practiced in Europe: The emphasis would be joint US-Canadian efforts to keep terrorists out of North America. Controls at the border itself would be correspondingly more relaxed; police work would be done behind the scenes, rather than at border checkpoints.
"We've got to protect North America jointly with the Americans," says Ren Mercier, an Immigration Canada spokesman in Ottawa.
Perimeter security is "an issue that should be explored," says Harvey Kushner, head of the criminal justice program at Long Island University in New York. He acknowledges, though, that to make the concept work, law-enforcement agencies in both countries will have to work closely together.
In response to the Ressam case, the US plans to add 600 agents to its force of 1,200 customs agents in place along the border with Canada.
Canadians are already concerned about border traffic jams as more agents perform inspections. But their real concern is something else, suggests Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
They are worried about possible implementation of Section 110 of the 1996 US immigration law. This legislation was a congressional response to the discovery that Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, who nearly succeeded in setting off a bomb in the New York City subway in 1994, simply rented a van and drove across the Canadian border into the US.
Section 110 would require some form of documentation of all US border crossings by noncitizens. And again, the Canadian business community fears this would bring border traffic to a virtual halt.
Like the Helms-Burton Act, a controversial trade law that put the US at odds with its European allies, Mr. Sands says Section 110 has been deemed "so outrageous it would never go anywhere."
But a terrorist incident could have Congress clamoring for implementation, now scheduled for March 2001, to be fast-tracked, Sands says. That's why he's calling for a binational commission on border security to consider policy options in what he calls a "depoliticized" environment.
The perimeter-security approach is likely to be a tough sell in Washington, though, where US Rep. Lamar Smith (R), chairman of the House subcommittee on immigration held hearings on the Ressam affair Jan. 26. He blasts Canada as "Club Med for terrorists."
Authorities have arrested a number of suspects in the case on both sides of the border, including Mohambedou Ould Slahi. This is the Mauritanian who, American investigators say, is the missing link between Ressam and Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire the US blames for the 1998 bombings of two of its Embassies in Africa. Mr. Slahi passed in and out of Montreal last fall, and according to US officials met with Ressam there, before he was arrested in Senegal.
Officials with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), say they were aware of Slahi's presence in Montreal and suggest that he fled because he felt the "pressure" of their investigation. But the CSIS did not move to have him arrested. "At that time there was no basis to arrest him, either by Canadian or American authorities," CSIS spokesman Dan Lambert said.
The Smith hearings were blasted in the press here as lopsided in their witness list and unfair to Canada. Canadian Ambassador Raymond Chrtien held an impromptu press conference afterward in which he defended Canadian security efforts and vowed to fight implementation of Section 110 "to the very, very end."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society