Canada to share data on low-flying aircraft

Great Falls Tribune

by Brian Tumulty

WASHINGTON — The U.S. and Canada are expected to begin coordinating the use of radar to detect low-flying aircraft along their border by November, a top U.S. customs official said Tuesday.

Alan Bersin, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said 22 military radar facilities operated by Canada will be combined with the radar the U.S. military and the Federal Aviation Administration use to track low-flying aircraft crossing the border illegally.

Earlier this year, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., led a bipartisan effort in the Senate, pushing the departments of Homeland Security and Defense to expand a pilot project that found the use of small, lowflying airplanes in cross-border drug smuggling is more widespread than previously thought.

After Bersin made the announcement Tuesday, Tester said in a release that the use of military-grade radar will improve safety in Montana’s border communities and across the state by allowing federal Homeland Security air operations to better identify and intercept aircraft illegally crossing the border.

“Our law enforcement officers and border agents will have an effective new tool to keep a better eye on the border, and to get in front of illegal crossings,” said Tester, a member of the Homeland Security Committee. “This is a smart, cost-effective and common sense way to keep making our communities safer— both from illegal drug threats and terrorist threats.”

“We have a longstanding relationship,’’ Bersin said of U.S. and Canadian border agencies during a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing chaired by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. He noted that the two countries have jointly operated the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) for decades.

Canadian information on low-flying aircraft will be received by Customs and Border Protection officials in Riverside, Calif., who monitor unauthorized aircraft crossing both the northern and southern borders.

Although far more illegal crossings take place along the U.S.-Mexico border, more people with possible terrorist links cross the northern border, Bersin told reporters following the hearing.

“Canada remains a major source of MDMA/Ecstasy and high-potency marijuana consumed in the U.S., while cocaine, weapons, illicit drug proceeds and other contraband regularly crosses from the U.S. into Canada,’’ Bersin said in written testimony.

He told the Senate panel the U.S. and Canada are cooperating more often on a number of border issues, including the sharing of intelligence and data about cross-border criminal activity such as drug trafficking.

The U.S.-Canada border is three times as long as the U.S.-Mexico border.

Schumer and Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota emphasized the need to maintain the flow of commerce and tourism while ensuring security.

In that area, Bersin said his agency is exploring the possibility of opening an inspection facility in Montreal that would serve Amtrak passengers traveling to New York.

Customs and Border Protection already inspects passengers in Vancouver, British Columbia, traveling by express train to Seattle. In other Canadian cities, they inspect passengers and luggage traveling by commercial aircraft to the U.S.

However, Amtrak trains traveling from Montreal to New York make several stops before reaching the U.S. border. As a result, the trains stop at the border for up to two hours for customs inspections. Bersin said Amtrak express trains similar to those operating in the Pacific Northwest would make an inspection system in Montreal “a more doable proposition.’’

The United States also is working with Canada on developing a joint trustedtraveler program that would enable Canadians and U.S. citizens to quickly cross the border using secure identification cards.

And U.S. customs officials want to establish an inspection system for shippers at the point of origination that would alleviate truck backups at major crossings such as the Peace Bridge connecting Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ontario, and the nearby Lewiston-Queenston Bridge connecting Lewiston, N.Y. and Queenston, Ontario.

But some setbacks are possible.

Schumer noted that the fiscal 2012 budget being proposed by House Republicans would cut funding for ports of entry by $26 million on top of the $60 million cut in the fiscal 2011 budget. The two cuts combined would reduce funding from fiscal 2010 levels by 27 percent.

“We need to be very careful to use a scalpel to cut wasteful spending as opposed to a meat-axe, which cuts critical investments like our ports of entry, solely to achieve cuts for their own sake rather than to achieve economic growth,’’ Schumer said.

Schumer also worried about possible spending cuts affecting Operation Stonegarden, which provides grants to county and tribal governments that help patrol the southern and northern borders. The Department of Homeland Security has proposed limiting the grants to the southern border, but Bersin told Schumer the northern border grants will continue if additional money is made available.