Port Angeles, Washington, Dec. 14, 1999. Agent Diana Dean was manning the customs station when the ferry from Canada's Vancouver Island docked. The driver of a green Chrysler sedan caught her attention. He appeared nervous, fidgety as he handed her his customs declaration.
"Where are you going?" Dean asked.
"Why are you going to Seattle?"
"Where do you live?"
"Who are you going to see in Seattle?"
Odd answers, Dean thought. Strange enough to warrant taking a closer look at the car. Good thing she did. The trunk contained about 40 kilograms of explosives and detonators.
The name on the license read "Benni Antoine Noris," but driver's real name turned out to be Ahmed Ressam, a graduate of al Qaeda's Afghan terrorist camps. Ressam confessed. He was bound for Los Angeles International Airport. To blow it up on New Year's Eve.
Many Americans drew the wrong lessons from the arrest of Ressam, the Millennium bomber. They thought that stopping a terrorist at the border was a success. And they concluded that transnational terrorism was a "manageable" problem -- one that could be dealt with by just playing alert defense. In reality, though, America had just gotten lucky that chilly December day.
The best way to secure a border is to stop the terrorist plots before they get there -- a strategy that makes particular sense for the United States and Canada. Rather than trying to harden the border between our two countries, Washington and Ottawa ought to be doing everything possible to facilitate trade and travel -- and focus their joint efforts at keeping transnational terrorists out of both countries.
For years after Sept. 11, however, sensible solutions received little attention. In Canada, every time serious efforts were made at cross-border cooperation, some politician would throw-up a red flag decrying a loss of sovereignty.
In the U.S., zealots wanted to treat the border with Canada like the border with Mexico -- even though the challenges on the northern and southern borders were very different.
For both economic and security reasons, it's time to get the Northern border right. Canada is America's largest trading partner. And the border is busy -- about 65 million crossings daily.
Canadian visitors alone spend on average $16 billion in the United States. Put simply, the U.S.-Canadian border is an economic engine. We should be looking for ways to crank it up -- not slow it down.
As for security, the threat facing both countries is, increasingly, homegrown. In 2006, Canadian law enforcement busted 18 homegrown terrorists training in Ontario. Inspired by al Qaeda, the Toronto 18 were plotting attacks in their country and America.
That same year, the U.S. broke-up a cell in Miami. There were reports that the two groups were in communication. The best manner to deal with these kinds of dangers is robust cooperation, information-sharing, and joint investigations, not hoping to catch a terrorist bopping back and forth across our common border.
Recently, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a "Beyond the Border" plan that finally seems to get it right.
This plan introduces a series of measures that focus on securing the "perimeter" of North America from transnational terrorists, criminals and illegal immigration activities -- while making movement across the border between the two countries simpler, faster and more secure including more risk-based screening, trusted traveler programs and the expansion of pre-clearance at air, rail and sea transport.
Let us hope that the New Year will see both countries following through and implementing the Beyond the Border plan.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Examiner