DOD Officials See Terrorist Threat to America Brewing in Canada
By Sebastian Sprenger
InsideDefense.com, February 20, 2009
Military officials believe Canadian immigration policies are creating a 'favorable' environment for what the U.S. government deems to be potential terrorists seeking entry into the United States from the north, according to an internal briefing crafted by a U.S. Northern Command joint task force.
Officials at the Joint Task Force-North believe a 'large population' of so-called special-interest aliens, or SIAs, in Eastern Canada presents the 'greatest potential for foreign terrorists' access to the homeland,' according to a Jan. 15 briefing available on the organization's Web site until recently.
Specifically, U.S. military officials worry about 'special-interest aliens' from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt who could find a 'favorable' environment in the Canadian immigration system, the briefing slides indicate.
Task force employees removed a link to the briefing file from the Web site's 'reading room' section on Wednesday, arguing the document had been published inadvertently. The briefing is unclassified. Some portions are marked 'for official use only' (FOUO) and 'law enforcement sensitive' (LES).
Joint Task Force-North, headquartered at Ft. Bliss, TX, is charged with supporting federal law enforcement agencies in counterterrorism and anti-smuggling operations.
The task force's assertions could present a point of friction between Washington and Ottawa, although it is unclear whether Canadian security officials would contest the JTF-North findings.
A spokeswoman for the Canadian Embassy in Washington referred a reporter's request for comment on JTF-North's assessments to the defense ministry in Ottawa. A spokeswoman there initially took questions from InsideDefense.com yesterday but later referred the issue to Public Safety Canada, a federal agency comparable to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
On his first international trip, President Obama yesterday met with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Both countries' foreign and defense ministers are also scheduled to meet in the coming weeks.
Armando Carrasco, a JTF-North spokesman, declined to discuss the contents of the briefing, saying the document's FOUO and LES designations prohibited him from speaking about it. He said the briefing was available on the site 'for a couple of weeks' before it was removed from the Web server.
Army Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for NORTHCOM's Army component, which oversees JTF-North, played down the briefing's significance. 'It represents the view of JTF-North and was not vetted with any other commands,' he said.
Task force officials crafted the briefing to present an overview of their operations to Rear Adm. Janice Hamby, NORTHCOM's director for command and control systems, when she visited the organization last month, according to Johnson. It details what taks force officials believe to be drug smuggling routes in Mexico and Central America — complete with maps, figures and descriptions of drug cartels operating in the area.
Asked how the document ended up on a public Web site, Johnson said, 'I would like to know that myself.'
There is no recent, publicly available definition of the 'special-interest alien' label used by various U.S. homeland security authorities. A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, whose chief, David Aguilar, has testified before Congress on the issue of SIAs, did not return a reporter's request for information by press time.
Public records suggest individuals from certain countries believed to be involved somehow in terrorist activity are automatically considered SIAs by U.S. authorities. They are subject to special scrutiny, and U.S. officials cross-check their personal information with a number of law enforcement and intelligence databases.
'We have a listing of the special interest countries where people coming from those special interest countries of course are designated as such, and automatically there's a higher level of scrutiny,' Aguilar told lawmakers on June 7, 2005, during a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security and the Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship subcommittees.
Officials also consider all non-U.S. citizens traveling through a special-interest country on their way to the United States to be SIAs, Aguilar said then, citing a hypothetical case of an Italian citizen flying to a U.S. airport from a special-interest country.
When apprehended at the border, special-interest aliens cause U.S. agents to engage in a 'certain level of questioning . . . where the enforcement officers would take that posture to the degree possible, absent any findings on databases, to make sure that we are doing anything we can to identify any potential ties' with terrorist activity, Aguilar told lawmakers.
At the time of the 2005 hearing, Aguilar confirmed Saudi Arabia was on the list of special-interest countries.
The JTF-North briefing slides state U.S. authorities had apprehended a total of 433 SIAs from Lebanon, Iran and Somalia at the Mexican border in the Southwestern United States. The document also describes a 'Hezbollah presence' in Mexico.
In the eastern area of the Great Lakes, including the stretch of Canada north of New York, Vermont and New Hampshire, JTF-North officials see the 'largest presence' of 'support networks and extremist organizations,' thus creating 'foreign terrorist opportunities,' or FTOs.