May 19, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Terrorism

U.S., Canada Bordering on Stupidity

America's wide-open US-Canadian border seemed to beckon the terrorists. The hated enemy was so close. It would be so easy to strike, then slip back. A simple matter, really, to blow up the entrance to the Welland canal. It would seal the bottleneck connecting Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, tying-up barge traffic for months, creating economic chaos.

At the last minute, secret agent Horst von der Goltz and his team of saboteurs lost heart. They abandoned their plan to leave their base in Buffalo, NY, and attack Canada.

Their September 1914 plot, now an obscure footnote to history, turns how we think about our border on its head. It should. The way most Americans think about our borders is pretty wrongheaded.

America and Canada are independent, sovereign nations. Still, it's ridiculous to think that our security is not connected--or that either nation can secure its peace and prosperity by trying to defend an invisible line on the ground.

The best way to safeguard both countries from transnational terrorists is to keep the bad guys out of North America in the first place. That means thwarting terrorist travel, getting the leadership, breaking up the organizations, disrupting their plots, cutting off their funds, and hampering their recruiting before they reach our shores.

Admittedly that doesn't solve the problem of killers who might already be here, homegrown extremists, or foreigners who turn to a terrorist cause after coming to North America for legitimate purposes.

And Canada has all of the above. Last week, the first of the "Toronto 18" pleaded guilty to a 2006 scheme "inspired by al Qaeda" to bomb city buses. But wait--the United States has them, too. In fact, since 9/11 law enforcement authorities have indicted individuals in almost two dozen cases.

The U.S. and Canada are both rowing in the same boat. We both have internal enemies, and we are each other's most important trading partner. Cross-bordertrade generates more than $1 billion-a-day. We must keep thattrade engine running as smoothly as possible.

But we also must keep up our guard against the criminals and terrorists who might try mimic Goltz's aborted cross-border warfare. To do the latter, we must identify and address problems long before they present themselves at the borders.

The U.S. and Canada already cooperate on counterterrorism investigations and share intelligence. That's good, but not good enough. Both nations have to do a better job of gaining the trust and confidence of their citizenry that they can safeguard one another.

There is cause for concern on both sides. Americans remember Ahmed Ressam, the "millennium bomber" caught trying to drive a car with a trunk full of explosives from Canada to L.A. Canadians can't forget Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen deported to Syria and brutally tortured, partly because of U.S.-supplied information that he was a suspected terrorist. Both have fresh in their minds the poorly written and ineptly explained U.S. Homeland Security report on "right-wing" extremism.

We need to move on. One way to help bridge the divide would be for U.S. and Canadian officials to conduct a joint "threat assessment" of the security challenges we jointly face. Intelligence and law enforcement from both countries should participate equally. The process of developing the assessment should be as transparent as practical. Public hearings could be held.

Each country should continue enforce its own counterterrorism and border security policies. After all, these are sovereign responsibilities. But, at least with a common, assessment of the shared threats we face, both nations can act with that the confidence they have a common understanding of the challenge--and they have honestly communicated that risk to their citizenry.

James Jay Carafano is Senior Research Fellow in national security policy at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared in the Washington Examiner