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Cantwell Highlights Northern Border Needs as House Committee Talks Security in Bellingham

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Location: Bellingham, WA


Cantwell Highlights Northern Border Needs as House Committee Talks Security in Bellingham

In testimony, Cantwell touts measures to improve crossings, patrol with unmanned aircraft, stop drug smuggling, ban border tunnels, support local law enforcement

Tuesday, August 08,2006

BELLINGHAM, WA - Tuesday, as the House Homeland Security Committee met in Bellingham to discuss northern border security, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) submitted testimony stressing the importance of supporting local border communities, and informed the committee of several initiatives she's backing to improve security along America's rugged, rural northern border. The hearing, which focused on the risk of terrorists crossing our northern border and the need to tighten border security without impeding commerce, featured the testimony of local Customs and Border Protection officials, the head of Washington state's National Guard, and other border security experts.

In her submitted testimony, Cantwell discussed several pending measures she's championed to enhance northern border security. Cantwell has urged the use of secure, tamper-proof documents for gaining entry into the U.S., but has stressed the importance of keeping these documents affordable and implementing any new requirements in a way that does not impede commerce.

"…as the most trade dependent state in the U.S., our economy depends on a smooth and seamless international transition that does not adversely affect the movement of goods across our border," said Cantwell in her testimony.

To help curb drug trafficking, stop human smuggling, and keep terrorists out of the United States, Cantwell joined Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) earlier this year in introducing legislation to ban border tunnels. Building, using, or financing border tunnels is not currently a crime. Her proposal was recently included in the Senate version of legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security during 2007. Cantwell has also sponsored legislation to begin a pilot program to test the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) along America's northern border. These aircraft have the potential to expand the reach of border personnel in a cost-effective way. This proposal has also been included in the Senate's Homeland Security funding legislation.

"UAVs are already deployed in limited use along the Southern border and have proven an effective resource to expand the reach and overall capability of agents as they respond to incidents," testified Cantwell. "With extended range, UAVs can conduct prolonged surveillance sweeps over remote border areas, relaying information to border agents on the ground and closing surveillance gaps that currently exist."

Cantwell also underscored the effects of the high costs that result from the federal government dumping border violations cases on local jurisdictions for prosecution. In 2004, Whatcom County was forced to prosecute more than 85 percent of the criminal apprehensions made by federal law enforcement officers at or near the border, costing the county more than $2.5 million.

"It's all too clear that our state and local governments are bearing an unfair financial burden," said Cantwell, a member of the Northern Border Coalition. "In Washington state, between 80 and 90 percent of criminal cases initiated by federal authorities are ultimately handled by local prosecutors. This has a significant impact on the entire criminal justice system in communities along Washington's northern border."

To help local jurisdictions cover these costs, Cantwell has joined Congressman Rick Larsen (D-WA) to propose a reimbursement program molded after an existing program for the southern border.

[The full text of the testimony submitted to the committee by Cantwell follows below]

I want to begin by thanking members of the House Homeland Security Committee for holding this hearing today. Washington state faces unique security challenges and this field hearing allows for a focused discussion on these challenges and ways we may work together to overcome them.

Those of us who live in America's border-states know that border security is our first line of defense. It's especially difficult to secure our 4,000 mile-long northern border—nearly twice as long as our southern border with vast, rural and rugged terrain between many official points of entry.

Yet today, only 10 percent of our nation's border patrol agents and resources are deployed along the northern border, despite the fact that we have apprehended terrorists attempting to cross via northern points of entry.

This fact has been demonstrated by two relatively well-known cases here in Washington state over the past decade. Abu Mezer was stopped three times at the U.S./Canada border in Whatcom County. On his final attempt, he came through the wilderness at Ross Lake, was picked up, held by INS and subsequently released. In 1997, he was arrested in New York and charged with plotting to bomb the subways.

In 1999, Ahmed Ressan entered the country at Port Angeles, Washington, where he was caught and arrested for plotting to attack Los Angeles International Airport.

Ressam was able to exploit a loophole in the Visa Waiver Program to move from Algeria to France, from France to Canada and from Canada into the U.S. At each stop, he created a false identity and attempted to enter the United States without a visa by using a false Canadian passport. He was apprehended thanks to the vigilance of one of our customs agents. But it is clear he should have not have gotten so far.

In 2004, I introduced legislation to require countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program to use biometric fingerprint identifiers for third-country nationals just like Ressam. This would make it much more difficult to falsify identities and much easier to discover illegitimate documentation. Under my legislation, the Secretary of State must certify to Congress, by the end of October, the progress that Visa Waiver Program countries have made to comply with this requirement.

In both the instances I've described, we were fortunate to apprehend these individuals. However, it's clear we have far more work to do to secure our northern border. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) further underscored this fact in testimony provided just last week before the Senate Finance Committee. The GAO found that undercover agents were able to use commercially available software and other materials to produce counterfeit identification, used to gain entry into the U.S. at nine land ports of entry.

In these undercover exercises, GAO also reported that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents were unable to identify the fake documents presented to them.

Last week's GAO report followed similar testimony the agency offered before the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations this March, stating that in 2005 two teams of undercover agents successfully smuggled radioactive material—Cesium 137—through points of entry in Texas and Washington.

Mr. Chairman, the status quo is clearly unacceptable. We must implement a smart system that uses best available, interoperable technology, which will ensure our CBP officers' ability to verify the identity of an individual and the authenticity of the documents they possess.

Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative

This is why I supported the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004, which directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and State Department to establish a system that would require an individual to possess a secure, tamper-proof document to gain entry into the U.S.

In 2005, the departments announced a proposed plan entitled the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) to implement this requirement in two phases beginning in 2007. While I support the general goal of this initiative, there are smarter, more efficient ways to go about it. Implementing the program on the northern border as proposed would have a detrimental impact on the legitimate trade, tourism and travel on which the economies of northern border communities rely.

For citizens of Washington state, it is absolutely critical that WHTI be implemented in a manner that minimizes any adverse effects on our citizens and economy. It must be proven to work. It must strike the right balance. With the best technologies and an appropriate plan for implementation, border security and efficient, cross-border commerce can work in tandem.

That's why the costs for obtaining any new credential must be affordable so that those Americans who live in our border communities and travel frequently between the U.S. and Canada are not unduly restricted in their travels.

In addition, tourism in Washington state is a major industry. Businesses providing transportation services to British Columbia make up a significant segment of this industry. We have both private and public ferries operating between Vancouver Island and Washington state. Washingtonians understand our ferries serve as an extension of our highways. As we move to implement WHTI, we must ensure that information is disseminated well ahead of implementation so that individuals may become familiar with new travel requirements. This is why I support including ferries in the roll out of WHTI as it applies to land border crossings.

Finally, as the most trade dependent state in the U.S., our economy depends on a smooth and seamless international transition that does not adversely affect the movement of goods across our border.

For these reasons, I've supported pushing the WHTI implementation date back to June 2009. While we continue to work on better securing our borders through the deployment of additional agents and resources, we must also ensure we establish the most intelligent system possible, to minimize any impact to legitimate travel, tourism and trade.

Combating International Drug Smuggling

I also want to highlight another aspect of border security we understand well here, in Washington state. Border security also means keeping our communities safe from international drug smuggling.

In 2005, just north of Lynden, Canadian customs agents discovered a 360-foot tunnel between the U.S. and Canada, which was being used to smuggle drugs. U.S. and Canadian authorities worked together and apprehended three individuals smuggling 93 pounds of marijuana into the U.S. They estimate that hundreds of pounds of drugs had been smuggled through the tunnel.

Criminalizing the Construction of Smuggling Tunnels

Currently there is no federal statute permitting law enforcement to punish individuals who have constructed tunnels on their property for smuggling and other illegal activities.

That is why I was proud to introduce the Border Tunnel Prevention Act (S.2355) with Senators Feinstein and Kyl.

This vital legislation, included in the DHS Appropriations Bill for next year, criminalizes the construction or financing of any tunnel across the border into the U.S. used to smuggle drugs, weapons, and even terrorists. Law enforcement agencies all along our borders need this additional tool to help them keep our borders safe and combat the influx of drugs into our communities.

It is becoming increasingly clear that drug smuggling organizations are willing to use illegal, dangerous, and increasingly sophisticated schemes, to enter the U.S., especially along our northern border.

Just last month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced the results of a two-year clandestine program, Operation Frozen Timber.

The effort targeted and dismantled a British Columbia-based smuggling organization that used helicopters and airplanes to transport large quantities of drugs across the border into the North Cascades. Local Law Enforcement stepped up as well, with sheriff's departments from Whatcom, Skagit and Okanogan Counties playing their part.

In all, Operation Frozen Timber intercepted more than 17 drug loads, seizing 8,000 lbs of marijuana, 800 lbs of cocaine, three aircraft and $1.5 in cash. Forty-five indictments and 40 arrests have been made in connection with this operation.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

Operation Frozen Timber showed that we need to continue to develop and deploy new technologies to assist our personnel surveying and securing our borders. These technologies have the potential to save taxpayers millions of dollars and reduce the loss of life.

UAVs are already deployed in limited use along the Southern border and have proven an effective resource to expand the reach and overall capability of agents as they respond to incidents. With extended range, UAVs can conduct prolonged surveillance sweeps over remote border areas, relaying information to border agents on the ground and closing surveillance gaps that currently exist.

These efficient and effective UAVs, have proven to be an invaluable asset in Operation Iraqi Freedom having flown more than 14,000 combat hours in the Iraqi theatre.

I sponsored an amendment also included in the FY2007 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations bill calling on DHS to work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct a pilot project at Northern Border Air Wing sites to test UAV's along the northern border for border security purposes.

Assessing the use of UAV's in this role is critical to modernizing our patrol capabilities to secure our borders.

Supporting Local Law Enforcement - Northern Border Prosecution Initiative

The last issue I'd like to touch on is the critical need to support our local law enforcement jurisdictions in the important role they play securing our borders. Every year hundreds of criminal cases and their soaring costs are thrust onto our northern border communities by federal entities.

It's all too clear that our state and local governments are bearing an unfair financial burden. In Washington state, between 80 and 90 percent of criminal cases initiated by federal authorities are ultimately handled by local prosecutors. This has a significant impact on the entire criminal justice system in communities along Washington's northern border.

In 2004, Whatcom County was forced to prosecute more than 85 percent of the criminal apprehensions made by federal law enforcement officers at or near the border. It cost the county more than $2.5 million.

That's why I'm working with Congressman Larsen to establish a federal program to reimburse northern border communities for the cost of prosecuting and detaining individuals suspected of border crimes. This program would be authorized under legislation we've introduced in the House and Senate entitled the Northern Border Prosecution Initiative Reimbursement Act.

Washingtonians deserve accountability when it comes to they're own tax dollars and they deserve confidence when it comes to their safety. When our resources are stretched thin, law enforcement must do more with less and ultimately, the safety of our communities is compromised. And in this era of record deficits, federal policymakers are often forced to make tough decisions. That's why it is absolutely imperative that we make the smart choices that invest in the new technologies, the personnel and other resources that will make our borders more secure.

In closing, I believe we are all here today because everyone agrees the security risk posed by our nearly 6,000 miles of porous borders is simply unacceptable. We have long needed a more effective border security plan. I want to thank the members and other participants for their steadfast commitment to securing our borders and I look forward to working with all of you in the future as we continue to identify better ways to protect our nation.

http://cantwell.senate.gov/news/record.cfm?id=261539&&days=30&

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