Saturday, August 21, 2004
Security boosted at border
Air, sea unit to watch Canadian crossing for terrorists, smugglers
By PAUL SHUKOVSKY
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
BELLINGHAM -- The Department of Homeland Security yesterday opened the first of five Air and Marine branches along the northern frontier, demonstrating a significant new commitment to security along the largely unfortified border. The new units are designed to better secure it from terrorists as well as traffickers of drugs, guns and illegal aliens.
As the office grows over the next year, 69 federal law enforcement officers and support people will take to the air and waters off Whatcom County and the San Juan Archipelago in a small armada that includes unmarked boats, a 33-foot aluminum vessel capable of 50 mph, two helicopters and a fixed-wing aircraft outfitted with advanced surveillance instrumentation.
While Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its predecessor agencies have long made use of aircraft and boats for their operations in Bellingham, the scope of the operation here and all along the Canadian border is being greatly augmented with many more planes, boats and people to reflect the new national priority of securing the northern frontier. These have long been a hallmark of border operations along the boundary with Mexico.
The expansion of ICE Air and Marine Operations along the Canadian border has been a goal at least since December 1999 when "millennium bomber" Ahmed Ressam was captured crossing from Canada with a truckload of explosives meant for a terrorist attack on Los Angeles International Airport, said Charles Stallworth II, national director of ICE's Air and Marine Operations.
"With Ressam, we recognized that it wasn't just smuggling" going on along the northern border, said Stallworth. "The plans were in place, but the funds were not. After 9/11, that all changed."
At a ceremony yesterday celebrating the opening of the Air and Marine branch, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., took credit for obtaining the financing to open the unit.
"Today, I feel like the northern-border is finally getting its due," said Murray, who called it an uphill battle to obtain the funds. She said she used her position on the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee, in collaboration with other northern-border senators, to insert $66.2 million into the budget for the air wing. But "neither the House bill nor the president's budget request included funding," according to a prepared statement from Murray. Ultimately Murray said she used her post on the Senate-House Conference Committee to reach a compromise budget of $35.2 million to establish the northern border air wing.
Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., who is seeking Murray's senate seat, was also at yesterday's ceremony. He did not contest the accuracy of Murray's statement when asked about it after her speech. A Nethercutt staffer later said that the House fiscal year 2005 budget calls for $61 million for Air and Marine Operations along the northern border.
The new northern border initiative aims to shut down drug and human smuggling routes using air and marine assets based in Montana, North Dakota, Michigan and New York, as well as Bellingham. The Plattsburgh, N.Y., branch is scheduled to open later this year.
As one of the air branch's Black Hawk helicopters glided yesterday over a waterfront home near Semiahmoo, one of the pilots pointed out the spot last May where a smuggler dumped $200,000 in cash over the side of a boat as agents closed in.
That arrest was a graphic demonstration of the utility of air and marine work in disrupting the huge, cross-border traffic in guns, cash and drugs, including the potent marijuana known as "B.C. Bud."
The case involving the cash started with intelligence developed by ICE's Office of Investigations, said Mitch Pribble, ICE aviation group supervisor. Special agents on the ground and ICE pilots in the air followed a man from Seattle to the waterfront home where he delivered a large bag.
The house was placed under surveillance from land by the ICE agents, and from the water by Air and Marine branch officers aboard their 33-foot boat. It was after midnight when the boat's radar picked up a small target moving parallel to the shore.
The agents illuminated a small, inflatable boat running with a quiet, electric trolling motor, said Pribble. By the time they got to him, he had dumped the bag overboard along with two cell phones.
The next day, divers from the Whatcom County Sheriff's Department recovered a bag containing $200,000 in cash. Three men were arrested on a USA Patriot Act charge of bulk cash smuggling. Two of them are expected to plead guilty next week. A trial is scheduled for the third next month.
Supervisory Special Agent Peter Ostrovsky, who runs a team of ICE agents that will work closely with the Air and Marine branch, said yesterday that "this gives us assets we need to be more effective."
But Ostrovsky said his enthusiasm was predicated not simply on more boats and planes but on the coming influx of numerous highly experienced officers who will be moving to the Bellingham-based unit from the southern border.
Federal officials christen airport site, tout surveillance capabilities
Katie N. Johannes, The Bellingham Herald
Increased efforts to block terrorists and smugglers from entering the United States begin in Bellingham today with the opening of a new Air Marine Branch, one of five that will dot the country's northern border.
The $35.2 million operation will use two boats, a small plane and two helicopters - including a long-range, high-powered UH-60A Black Hawk - to patrol the border west to Montana, and pursue intruders discovered through surveillance.
EYES ON THE BORDER
Here's a look at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's first Air Marine Branch on the nation's northern border, which begins operations today in Bellingham:
3 aircraft permanently stationed: A-Star helicopter; PC-12 Pilatus airplane; UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter.
69 employees at full staffing.
$35.2 million spent to establish the Bellingham base.
Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
In addition to the border, aircraft will cover all of Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
The base opens today at Bellingham International Airport with about 28 employees, increasing by year's end to 69, including pilots, law officers and support staff.
At a dedication ceremony Friday, officials praised the branch's arrival, but many acknowledged the additional pressure that increased enforcement likely will place on the Whatcom County legal system, including the overcrowded jail.
The northern Air Marine Branch will replicate the security system that has been operating for three decades along the southern border with Mexico, said Charles E. Stallworth II, director of the Office of Air and Marine Operations.
The Air Marine Branch operates under the new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement division within the Department of Homeland Security.
The expansion of the Air Marine Branch to the north was prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Government officials chose Bellingham as the first site for a variety of reasons, including the area's diverse geography and known regular importation of illegal drugs and people.
"The threat is real," said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., using as an example Ahmed Ressam's attempt in December 1999 to cross the border in Port Angeles with a car full of explosives, bound for the Los Angeles International Airport.
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, said the northern branches would be opened using a "book ends" approach. The next base will open in Plattsburgh, N.Y., with Montana, North Dakota and Michigan to follow.
Illegal activity aside, the two border crossings in Blaine - at the Peace Arch and the truck crossing - are the third busiest crossings into Canada behind Buffalo, N.Y., and Detroit.
That much commerce brings the threat of illegal importation, Stallworth said, and smugglers have known that they have easy access into the United States through Canada.
"The bad guys go where you aren't," he said.
Officials noted that the Air Marine Branch also should protect Canada from the flow of contraband north from the United States.
Helicopter pilot Mike Biggs, who is based in Sacramento, Calif., said part of the Air Marine Branch mission is to deter criminal activity and develop intelligence that will help agents stop smugglers and terrorists before they get to the border.
The branch will add to other Whatcom County border security agencies including Border Patrol and customs inspectors and the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Border Patrol uses a small plane and a helicopter and two 25-foot rigid-inflatable boats stationed in Bellingham. It also has a 17-foot Boston Whaler at the Ross Lake Ranger Station, said Assistant Chief Joe Giuliano. The Coast Guard has two 25-foot rigid-inflatable boats, an 87-foot cutter and a 47-foot rescue boat stationed in Bellingham.
"It just gives us more things to fall back on," Giuliano said. "It's not like you can ever have too much stuff. The more tools that are there in the box, the better job we can do."
A small Air Marine Unit from San Diego has operated in Bellingham on a temporary basis for three years using a small plane and helicopter. The new equipment and staff are permanent.
Whatcom County Undersheriff Carey James said that with the increased enforcement, the already overcrowded, aging jail will see even more pressure.
"It's going to cause problems, but we've survived this long, and we can make compromises," he said, and overall, he sees the branch as "a great asset."
James said he expects the increased federal presence to bring with it increased federal funding to help manage the effects on Whatcom County.
Murray and Larsen both said that local taxpayers should not have to carry the financial burden caused by increased enforcement for the protection of the nation, and they pledged to infuse local coffers with money to offset costs.
Stallworth said the increased security should send a message to smugglers and terrorists: "We will detect you, we will intercept you and we will arrest you."
Mean while at the southern border we have record numbers racing across......