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There’s a Bomb in My Backpack

Could a trail-savvy terrorist hike a nuke into America through wilderness areas on the Canadian border? An anonymous hiker-patriot alerts the White House.
june 09 bomb 445x260 tamaki(Illustration by Jillian Tamaki)

Mr. President, I understand that you have other concerns right now. I’d rather suffer chronic bunions than have to listen to GM execs plead for an umpteenth billion. But you might recall that back in 2006, when home prices were quadrupling by the day and even my terrier-Chihuahua mix could get a zero-interest A.R.M., the chief concern of the White House was safety–namely, preventing another terrorist attack within America’s borders. That’s when Congress asked its watchdog group, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, to examine security on the U.S.-Canada border. After a yearlong investigation, the GAO issued a summary of its findings. Maybe you remember the ominously titled fall 2007 report: “Security Vulnerability at Unmanned, Unmonitored U.S. Border Locations.”

The exposé detailed security deficiencies along the northern border that would shock even Nancy Pelosi. Equipped with duffel bags and suitcases, the GAO team traversed much of the 5,000-mile frontier, crossing illegally at numerous checkpoints and remote locations. They’d have had a harder time sneaking into the local cineplex. “The proximity of road[s] to the border allowed investigators to cross undetected,” stated the report. The memo went on to note that agents “successfully simulat[ed] the cross-border movement of radioactive materials or other contraband into the United States from Canada.”

Scared? Neither was President Bush, who was preoccupied with bigger priorities (I forget what). Likewise, the mainstream press, Homeland Security officials, and Congress largely ignored the memo. In fact, by the time the report came out, the country’s attention had been almost entirely hijacked by tanking home prices and presidential campaigning. Even senators who weren’t running for president virtually ignored the report.

Not me. As a patriot, I was alarmed. As a backpacker, I was offended. Could some of our most sacred backcountry areas be used as crossing points by terrorists? The North Cascades? The Pasayten Wilderness? Glacier National Park?
I called Greg Kutz, the GAO investigator who led the project. “If no one’s working at a checkpoint, you just drive around the gate,” he told me, recalling a successful crossing from one of Canada’s eastern provinces. “On one occasion, we stood in front of a camera at an unmanned station and started waving. No one showed up for a long time, and when he did, he asked, ‘Are you guys the camera repairmen?'” And that was a guarded crossing. What’s to prevent some myopic, scripture-twisting mass murderer from loading a backpack full of anthrax or ricin or botulism and hiking through a proper wilderness area, far from any roads or checkpoints or marked trails? According to Kutz, not much. “We’re not anywhere close to having a secure northern border,” he told me. “In fact, we don’t even know if securing the border is a realistic objective.”

For perspective, consider the disparity in resources that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection allocates to the southern and northern borders. On the Mexico border, there are hundreds of miles of fencing and walls; up north, there are virtually none. Across California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, almost 12,000 CBP agents (and calls for additional troops from the National Guard!) keep watch, while Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Maine–encompassing a border more than twice as long–have fewer than 2,000 agents. The U.S.-Mexico border has millions of dollars’ worth of cameras, unmanned infrared-equipped aircraft, and ground-motion detectors. Up north? CBP has little surveillance equipment beyond the cameras (apparently in need of repair) at its manned guard stations, many of which are only staffed from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Excuse me, but does Homeland Security really think Al Qaeda keeps union hours? For all we know, the next terrorists-in-training aren’t enrolled in a Florida flight school–they’re heading to Wyoming for a NOLS course.

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