Danger at Our Door
John Pfeifer parks his sedan at the corner of Maple Street and walks north a few hundred feet to the frontline of the war. “I just want to show you something,” he says. It's as pretty as any neighborhood you might visit. There's a small yellow house, a blue contemporary, a faded gray two-story home, and a white ranch with red shutters. Plastic bags plump with raked leaves dot the lawns. Two girls play in a driveway. A silver-haired woman waves from her kitchen. What's happening half a world away could not feel more distant than it does in this idyllic New England neighborhood until you look more closely.
Across the street, a Canadian flag hangs over a front door. The traffic sign says “ARRET” as well as “STOP.” A bigger sign behind it reads: “Report Immediately for Inspection, Customs, and Immigration.” And from its perch atop a telephone pole, hidden by the foliage, a video camera is recording every passing car and pedestrian. This neighborhood, four hours north of Boston, lies smack on the border separating Derby Line, Vermont, from Stanstead, Quebec. There are no barriers, gates, or guards. The honor system rules. A busy inspection station on the nearby highway screens vehicles crossing from Canada into the United States. But a driver hoping to sneak through – an illegal immigrant, a drug smuggler, a member of any of the 50 terrorist groups known to be operating in Canada – could easily get off the highway, take the back roads, and shoot down Maple Street to the American side. “They know we have sensors and cameras,” says Pfeifer, the border patrol agent in charge of this 32-mile stretch in northeastern Vermont. “It's a cat-and-mouse game of them trying to go where they think the sensors aren't.”
Shouldn't this particular intersection, which seems like such an easy way to skirt the system, be tightened, even sealed off? Pfeifer shrugs. “It's hands across the border,” he says. “They don't want walls.” And without a wall, no amount of money to boost patrols along the porous border will ever plug all its holes. It is, says one security expert, “like trying to catch minnows at the base of Niagara Falls.”
From Lake Champlain in the northwest corner of Vermont to the dense forests and vast prairies along the tip of New Hampshire to the rocky shoreline of Maine, New England's border with Canada stretches 760 miles, and much of it is like this. That has attracted terrorists to Canada. It's U.S. blood they want. They are there precisely to be near this relatively defenseless doorstep into the United States. Reports that terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks had driven through a remote Maine checkpoint or ridden a ferry from Nova Scotia into Bar Harbor right under the Coast Guard's nose have so far proven false; investigators believe that most entered the country using legal visas. But after boasting for years about sharing the world's longest undefended border, the United States and Canada now are sparring over how to protect it. And whether the fallout leads to more inspectors and border patrol agents, a new security zone around all of North America, or even eye scans and fingerprint checks, New England – particularly Boston – has perhaps the most at stake. “Boston is a lot closer to the frontline of this war,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, “than any war since the War of 1812.”
The drive to Canada is deceiving. on a map it looks far away. In a car it feels far away. But by the time you've paid the toll in New Hampshire, passed through the White Mountains, endured a single-lane stretch of I-93 near Mt. Washington, caught I-91 in Vermont, and started noticing that the songs on the radio are in French, less than four hours have passed. That's how long it would take for a terrorist who entered through a weak link in the border to join the invariable traffic on the Southeast Expressway.
“Sometimes at night you'll hear a car zip by and know it's someone who's trying to get away,” says Luc Jobin, whose backyard in Stanstead touches the Vermont border. “Then a few minutes later you hear the Royal Canadian Police go after them.” Wearing a black Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, he stands next to the white picket fence behind his house. He says his wife lives in constant fear that someone arrested on the border will escape from custody, break in, and take them hostage.
His neighbor, Mavis Smith, is on her knees planting flowers beside her front stoop. She's lived here 45 years and says she's called authorities a few times when she saw a suspicious car drive past. “We are a little more open than other countries,” she says. “We used to think it was a good thing, but now not as much.” At least 15 known terrorists have crossed from Canada to the United States since 1995, and those are only the ones who were identified. “Terrorist groups are using Canada as a base,” Krikorian says. “And Canada's problem is our problem.”
That problem begins with Canada's lenient refugee laws, which make it fertile ground for terrorists. Its own spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, says it knows of at least 350 terrorists living in the country; Canada, it says, “has been a frequent destination for international terrorists.” The most notable was an Algerian named Ahmed Ressam, who was nabbed in December 1999 with 130 pounds of explosives at a ferry terminal in Washington State. Subsequent arrests of other Islamic militants in Boston and New York had investigators crowing that they had foiled a plot by Osama bin Laden to blow up American landmarks on the eve of the millennium. But little was said about how Ressam had routinely slipped in and out of Canada with no hassle before his arrest, or why he was confident enough to load his car with bombs and drive straight to a major checkpoint, sure he wouldn't be caught. “Ressam was known to Canada officials but not to U.S. officials,” says Juliette Kayyem, director of Harvard's domestic preparedness program. “They know who's in their country. We should know who's there, too.”
But as lax as the Canadians have been in allowing people to claim asylum and get lost in the system, U.S. officials are in no position to point fingers. More than 6 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, and it's not as if they had to dig a tunnel or ram through a concrete wall to get here. The United States considers its northern border guarded because it has cameras, motion sensors, and border patrol agents. The reality is this:
Many U.S. inspection stations, including those in rural Maine, are so understaffed they go unattended for hours with nothing but orange cones and remote-control cameras. There are gaps of as much as 75 miles between some checkpoints. The markers that are supposed to be visible every mile are often covered by brush that hasn't been cleared in years. The commission that maintains the northern border operates on an annual budget of less than $2 million, while the southern border gets $30 million. On the day of the attacks, 2,400 U.S. border patrol agents and Immigration and Naturalization Service inspectors guarded America's 2,000-mile border with Mexico. That's more than one agent for every mile. The northern border, which at 4,000 miles (not including Alaska) is twice as long, was being guarded by 832 agents and inspectors, one for every five miles. The northern border actually had become still more relaxed in recent years, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which allows more than $1 billion in goods to pass between the two countries each day. “NAFTA was supposed to make it easier to travel between the countries,” says Jim Walsh, an international security fellow at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. “If we react to these events by building a wall, what's the cost? Is it worth blocking 99.9 percent of everyone who goes across those borders to try to stop one individual?”
Pfeifer, sitting in his office 10 miles south of Canada, says he knows a wall is not going to be built. He'd settle for more bodies, more cameras, and more sensors for that next time a runaway snowmobile heads for the Vermont hills or a smuggler tries to sneak across 25-mile-long Lake Memphremagog. “I don't want to rant and rave about more people, but it would be nice,” he says. “It's challenging with all the open area we have.” He is stocky, with a crewcut and bushy brown mustache. His dark olive uniform covers the bullet wound a deranged gunman inflicted on him in 1997. “We went to Level I security on September 11, and we're still there,” Pfeifer says. “One hundred percent of trucks are being inspected. Things are being looked at a lot harder than before. No one is going to want to let something go.”
Still, no matter how many inspections are conducted at the 105 legal crossings from Washington to Maine, and no matter how long the waits become, it's the stretches between the checkpoints that provide the ultimate challenge to security. The Berlin Wall, it's not. “We've been catching people here a long time,” Pfeifer says, “but the cry is for the southern border.” With reason. The United States arrested 1.6 million people, mostly smugglers and migrants, trying to sneak from Mexico in fiscal year 2000. Only 12,000 were caught sneaking from Canada, almost 10 percent of them in Pfeifer's Swanton Sector, which runs from the New Hampshire-Maine border to Ogdensburg, New York.
To anyone who never considered Canada a threat, Pfeifer suggests taking a look through his arrest reports. Those apprehended in this rural northeastern district represent more than 100 different nationalities, raising the question of whether Canada should crack down on those it lets in.
“I don't even want to go there,” Pfeifer says.
If not for the curious strip of black electrical tape running across its dusty hardwood floor, the 100-year-old Haskell Free Library and Opera House in Derby Line would be just another lonely piece of New England history. Designed by a Boston architect and built with bricks and mortar brought from Boston, its cluttered shelves hold 20,000 volumes, a fraction of the 6 million in the Boston Public Library. The tape on the floor is there to mark the border. Half of this building is in Canada, the other half in the United States. During performances in the opera house upstairs, the audience sits in Vermont applauding performers on stage in Quebec. A law passed in 1908 outlawed further construction on the border, but the library was allowed to stay in its official no man's land. A stone obelisk outside the building, one of 8,000 markers along the entire length of the border, marks the line. On nearby Canusa Avenue (Can-USA), the border is simply marked by the double yellow stripe down the middle.
This has always been an open border, and that has always attracted trouble. On October 19, 1864, a band of Confederate cavalrymen disguised as a fishing party crossed the border and briefly terrorized St. Albans, Vermont. It was part of a plan by the Confederacy to distract the Union armies poised to win the Civil War. During Prohibition, rumrunners routinely sneaked into the country along the Maine coast, largely without being challenged.
In the days after the September attacks, Canadians felt the pain of Americans, but they also heard the complaints that their country needs to beef up its travel, immigration, and visa restrictions. “Blaming it on your neighbors makes it easier for Americans to accept this,” says Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian citizen and a professor of human rights policy at Harvard's Kennedy School. “It's a bad rap.”
Former governor Paul Cellucci, who is now U.S. ambassador to Canada, has spearheaded efforts to instate a security perimeter around all of North America, which would keep the trade routes across the border moving smoothly. But the idea has been met with a northern chill from some officials in both countries. Cellucci says there is no foolproof way to guard this imaginary line. “We have 200 million border crossings a year, and less than 1 percent are illegal,” he says. “It's a little like catching a needle in a haystack.”
But if that needle is a terrorist, it can draw a lot of blood. At a pizza shop in Stanstead, down the hill from the Haskell Free Library, a foursome sitting around a table swapping stories about the latest news turns defensive when the topic switches to where the blame lies. Troy Winter, a 36-year-old real estate agent, says that if Americans don't want terrorists flocking in, they should tighten their own border. “Terrorists are going there,” he says. “We're not the ones being attacked. If Americans are counting on the Canadians to tighten the border, you could put a parade through. To tighten down the border here and have 30 miles of woods right next to here, what's the point? You can lock down the border all you want, but as long as you've got fields and water, what can you do?”
Defeatist attitudes like this don't sit well with Ben Batchelder. Standing in the middle of one of those vast fields, Batchelder plops his left foot down in Canada, his right one in America, and hooks his thumbs into the waist of his sagging green pants. “I don't feel overwhelmed,” he says nonchalantly. Batchelder, another border agent, is retiring next month after 30 years patrolling the northern border. If this is the frontline, he's the soldier in the trenches. Unlike Pfeifer, 37, who wears a crisp blue tie over his neatly buttoned shirt, Batchelder, 55, wears his collar open at the neck. Wisps of gray chest hair peek through. His face looks like a map just yanked out of a glove compartment, with all its creases and lines. But when it comes to tracking footsteps or tire tracks, Pfeifer calls Batchelder king.
The brush is cut low where they're standing, with rundown farms to the east and west. Batchelder unclips the binoculars from his belt loop and peers north eight miles. “See that sparkle there? That's Line Farm,” Pfeifer says, pointing. “And there's 32 miles of this.” It's a reminder of how much wide-open territory his unit covers. The only reason he can see so far is that he's standing directly on a clearing along the border known as “the Slash,” a 20-foot-wide swath cut through any wooded area of the border.
This seems as good a place as any to sneak across, because even if a sensor or camera caught you, it might take 10 minutes for a patrol agent to arrive. That doesn't mean everybody gets away with it. It was near here, just over the border in Canada, that the Royal Canadian Police recently caught a blue Cutlass sneaking back to Canada with 150 half-gallons of alcohol. The driver thought a dirt road was safe. On the nearby highway, several trucks were stopped at the port of entry – one with 27 illegal aliens in the back, another with 70 pounds of marijuana. “I back my car into the woods right there, turn off my lights, and park,” Batchelder says. “It's a good spot.” But he concedes that while he's waiting in the woods, dozens of other spots are unprotected. “It's pretty hard to be everywhere at once.” That's why he also relies on residents to call if they see or hear a suspicious vehicle late at night. “We have intimate knowledge of the area, and lots of friends and neighbors,” Batchelder says. “I like to think we're on top of it. Given the resources we have, we do a pretty good job.”
Driving out a few minutes later, three cars pass him. The drivers all smile and wave. He knows them. They know him. It's the only way it can work, he says.
Unlike northern Vermont or rural Maine, there are no spacious fields to worry about patrolling where Omar Vargas works the border. No dirt roads through the trees, or quirky neighborhoods with shortcuts around inspection stations, or, for that matter, places for him to hide sensors and cameras. All he has to focus on is miles of water and rocky shoreline. Measure the Maine coast in a straight line and it's 230 miles. Trace every twist and turn, along every beach, peninsula, island, inlet, bay, cove, and harbor, and it's 3,500. “It's one of the hardest coasts to navigate because of the small islands, the terrain, the rocks, the weather, and the ice,” Vargas says, after easing the Coast Guard's 47-foot search-and-rescue boat away from the dock in Southwest Harbor. With a crew of four in their orange jackets, he steers the boat into open waters. He and others at this station have been working triple the hours they were before September 11. It's a sunny day, and he can easily see for miles and look closely at the activity on the shore. But with so many places for a boat to hide, Vargas says all he can do is watch out for anomalies, boats he doesn't recognize taking trips at odd hours. “See that boat there? I know him,” he says, waving at a small fishing vessel.
Seaman Chris Haun says that in the days after the attacks, Coast Guard boats escorted every tourist ship and tanker through Maine's harbors. Months later, he hasn't relaxed. “The things that didn't seem important, now you look for the slightest thing that's not right,” he says. “Now I expect something to happen. Before I didn't.”
The Coast Guard station is at the opposite end of Mount Desert Island from Bar Harbor, where investigators initially suspected some of the terrorists might have entered the country from an international ferry owned by Bay Ferries Limited that makes regular trips from Nova Scotia. “A lot of people still really believe that, but it's not true,” Annette Higgins, president and Bar Harbor terminal manager of Bay Ferries, says from behind the counter, and all available evidence supports her. After the attacks, investigators collected the passenger manifests for the entire year, and customs inspectors started checking outbound passengers and vehicles for the first time. Higgins says those inspections will probably be permanent, along with the requirement that passengers show photo identification to board the boat.
In downtown Bar Harbor, the tourist season has ended, but Harbormaster Charlie Phippen, who spent 20 years with the Coast Guard, is still keeping watch. From his cramped office on the waterfront, he stands in his khaki uniform and duck boots and stares out the window with his binoculars. “It's a smuggler's haven,” he says. “So much of the coast is unpopulated, and there's deep water right up to the shore. Anybody who's savvy in these types of waters could get in easily with little or no detection.”
It's a mild morning, and the gravel road in Newport Center, Vermont, is muddy. John Pfeifer paws the ground with his black boot like a bull staring down a matador, first with his toe, then his heel. Bending down, he scrapes his fingernails into it. “See this?” he says. “Deer. Recent, too.” The vehicle tracks look less fresh. He hears a boat on the lake that straddles the border and looks down to follow its path. It's already on the American side, but he's not sure if it started there or if it just crossed from Canada. “I'd like to find out,” he says. He walks back to his patrol car.
At congressional hearings last year to discuss beefing up the northern border, well before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, California Senator Dianne Feinstein said there was a rising risk of terrorism. “If we're going to carry out our number one responsibility, which is to protect the national security of this country, we cannot ignore this area,” she said. The Immigration and Naturalization Service and U.S. Border Patrol made its plea about the understaffed border. But little changed.
Four thousand deaths later, lawmakers in the United States and Canada snapped into action. More than 100 patrol agents were reassigned from the Mexican to the Canadian border. Lawmakers passed a bill that could triple the number of agents on the northern border, though there still is no promise the money will be used for that. Canadian authorities said they would implement bomb-detection and fingerprint scanners at airports and a tougher immigration and refugee processing system.
The solution, offers Stephen Flynn, a U.S. Coast Guard commander and security expert on border controls with the Council on Foreign Relations, is not to catch people when they arrive at a crossing point, but before they get there.
“A minute per truck they spend,” he says of customs inspectors at checkpoints. “It takes five guys three hours to tear apart a container. And we're clearing trucks in a minute.” Instead of protecting the borders, he says, the United States should focus on the point of origin for cargo and people, making sure the people getting on planes, in trucks, and on trains are who they say and are carrying what their papers say.
Ignatieff, the Canadian citizen and Harvard professor, agrees.
“The largest undefended border used to be an asset,” he says. “Now it's a liability. A lot's at stake on getting it right.”