DHS eyes beefed-up security on U.S.-Canada border

Canadians would need ID cards

The United States wants to implement biometric border-crossing identification cards by 2008 to protect the nation against possible attacks by terrorists based in Canada, a Homeland Security Department senior policy official said today in testimony before Congress.

'The security rationale for the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative is robust, and yet often unheard, particularly in regard to U.S. and Canadian citizens,' Paul Rosenzweig, acting assistant secretary for policy at DHS, said during a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration.

The travel initiative, sponsored by the Homeland Security and State departments, would require passports or other new, secure documents for Canadians, Mexicans and U.S. citizens who cross the borders.

It is the first time such a rule would be applied to Canadians seeking to enter this country. Canada is the only foreign country whose citizens are allowed to show only a driver's license, birth certificate or other residency documents and be granted immediate entry into the United States.

The travel initiative has generated its share of controversy, as residents in many border communities fear it would hamper travel and commerce. There also has been disagreement about the effectiveness of privacy protections in the proposed radio frequency identification technology anticipated for the new secure document, known as the People Access Security Services card, which will be issued as an alternative to passports for frequent border crossers.

Recognizing the concerns, the Senate adopted an amendment May 19 in the immigration reform bill to postpone implementation of the PASS card for 17 months, until June 2009.

However, the current system is vulnerable to terrorists operating in Canada who obtain false documents to enter the United States, Rosenzweig said. It is very difficult to identify fraud and counterfeiting, he added.

'More than 8,000 different types of documentation are presented by travelers to Customs and Border Patrol officers,' he said.

That represents an ongoing security risk because nearly 20,000 Islamic immigrants from the Afghanistan and Pakistan regions have entered Canada since 2001, he said. Canadian authorities have noted fundraising, weapons procurement and other support activities within their borders for Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups.

On June 8, Canadian law enforcement officials announced they had foiled a plot by 17 suspected terrorists to attack targets in southern Ontario.

Deploying the PASS card will offer protections against terrorists using false documentation, Rosenzweig said. To address the need for ease of travel and commerce, it will be a convenient, wallet-sized card, which also will cost substantially less than a passport.

'The card will contain security features and will use technology to link the identity and citizenship of the bearer to a U.S. government database in a privacy-protective manner,' Rosenzweig said. He did not address the RFID controversy in his prepared remarks

Other speakers at the hearing also noted the risk from Canadian terrorists and the less stringent protections at the northern border.

'In our study, we found one border agent every one-quarter mile on the southern border, and one agent for every 13.5 miles on the northern border,' Janice Kephart, former counsel to the 9/11 Commission and now a consultant, testified at the hearing. 'That is a pretty big disparity we should consider closing.'

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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