An Olympic Test for Northern Border Security

An Olympic Test for Northern Border Security

The upcoming 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics will serve as a critical test for United States and Canadian homeland security operations. This high-profile event is bringing thousands of visitors to the Seattle-Vancouver area, potentially straining the region’s law enforcement and intelligence capabilities. At the same time, it provides a unique opportunity to test U.S./Canada cooperation, information sharing, and incident management. The world will be watching as these two countries prepare for an unprecedented challenge to their shared border – to their economic growth and prosperity and to the safety and security of their people and cities.

The border between the U. S. and Canada is vast, complex, and difficult to secure. It is characterized by many different environments – growing urban centers, busy ports of entry (land, air, and sea) for trade and travel, and deserted, unmonitored stretches of land with dense forest and harsh winter weather.

Secure movement of legitimate trade and travel depends on many stakeholders and government programs within both countries. Expanded binational cooperation and preparation is critical as the 2010 Games approach.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plays a critical role securing the event; many of its recent policies and programs will be tested under a microscopic lens by supporters and critics alike.

Earlier this year, newly appointed DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano issued an Action Directive to analyze the vulnerabilities, requirements, programs, budget, and timeframe for improving the northern border with Canada. This policy initiative brought northern border security to the top of DHS’ agenda. It called on both the U.S. and Canada to effectively secure their shared boundary while facilitating the vital trade and travel that flows across the border every day.

As the Games begin, all eyes will be watching DHS to see if the new policies and capabilities that have been established to create a seamless security structure along the world’s longest land border will work.

A Challenging Border

Securing the northern border is not easy and the threat is constantly evolving. There is obvious concern about curbing illegal entry and trafficking. On land, sea, and air, the U.S.-Canadian border represents a vast amount of space that is difficult to cover with conventional border security systems and technology. At formal border crossing points and between ports of entry, DHS needs better resources and technology to detect the greatest threats. DHS cannot lose sight of challenges and complexities of the northern border given the high number of high-value terrorist targets concentrated in that region alone.

Figure 1 shows the geographical complexity and the key threats in the Seattle-Vancouver region.Figure 1 Major threats will test the security of the northern border during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

New policies and programs along the border must also facilitate trade and travel. More than 300,000 travelers cross the U.S.-Canadian border every day. More than 70% of the U.S. and Canada’s $560 billion trade partnership comes across the border by truck. Extended wait times and security checks from newly installed security programs have dealt significant blows to the trade and tourism industries in the past. Governments, their private sector partners, and the public share a common interest in a smart border – one that is secure and efficient at the same time.

Recent successes in bilateral cooperation on law enforcement programs, identification requirements, and emergency preparedness demonstrate progress. To address an evolving threat on the northern border and a more complicated economic environment, the U.S. and Canada must continue to collaborate. This relationship must include all stakeholders – the private sector and government organizations at the local, state, and national level.

The 2010 Olympic Games represent a distinct challenge for the new DHS leadership. There is the threat of organized terrorist activities from groups who view Canada as a high priority target due to their large role in the Afghanistan war and other U.S.-led security initiatives. Such groups have already targeted the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games for similar reasons. Another high concern for the upcoming games is “lone actor” threats, individuals such as Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games bomber. Such individual threats tend to target high-profile events and are very difficult to identify and track due to a lack of organizational structure. There is also concern of anti-globalization and anti-corporation mass protests during the games, endangering the security and safety of participants. The recent global H1N1 flu pandemic highlights the importance of securing such a large, global audience for the games in such a small area.

Due to the location and heightened focus on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the event presents a unique opportunity to test new security leadership, policies, and programs in the Northwest region.

Figure 2 summarizes these major threats to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Current Initiatives

Over the past decade, DHS and its Canadian counterparts have established a number of policies and programs to secure the shared border. Identity management programs allow the Government to identify individuals that may pose a threat to security or may be attempting to enter either country illegally. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) requires proof of identification and citizenship for people entering the U.S. Despite successful implementation at national airports, significantly increased test wait times at border crossings that could damage local business and trade have delayed program adoption at land and sea ports of entry. Another example is the U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program, which identifies and tracks visitors using biometrics (fingerprints and photos) and biographic information to establish and verify individual’s identity and authorization to enter or leave the U.S.

Figure 2 The nature of the threat requires a coordinated U.S./Canada effort.

The U.S. and Canada have a long history of successful law enforcement cooperation, focusing on drug and arms trafficking long before Sept. 11, 2001. The Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBETS) combine federal and local law enforcement resources to fight cross-border crime through information sharing and joint-action operations. During a meeting in late May 2009, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and Canadian Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan planned to expand the Shiprider program, which allows law enforcement authorities from both governments to ride together in the same patrol boats on border waterways.

Canada and the U.S. have also worked with businesses and travelers to implement new programs. The Enhanced Driver’s License, NEXUS card, Free and Secure Trade (FAST) Driver, and Global Entry programs have increased security and speed of travel by allowing travelers to volunteer for background checks prior to border crossings.

Homeland security officials in the U.S. and Canada have already begun implementing policies and initiatives specifically aimed at security challenges of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Immigration and border security authorities have expanded ports of entry to accommodate the large number of international tourists visiting the Washington-British Columbia area. For example, the third busiest crossing on the northern border, Peace Arch, underwent a $75 million renovation project to increase inspection lanes for the Games. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police oversee security operations for the Games through an integrated security unit (ISU), a fusion center housing a collection of diverse homeland security stakeholders such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), and private security firms. These ISU security stakeholders participated in a series of table-top exercises leading up to the Games - known as Exercise Bronze, Silver, and Gold – in order to develop key information sharing practices and confirm the readiness of security and incident management plans.

Integrated, Innovative Solutions

To secure the border and strengthen relationships, both countries must continue to work on cooperative security policies and programs. The security initiatives of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games are just one more step in establishing a secure border between the United States and Canada.

Therefore, the U.S. and Canada should focus limited resources on three main areas to make the most significant impact in the short and long-term:

  • Land Ports of Entry Risk Management. Border security programs need new and innovative solutions to speed legitimate movement across the border while focusing on the greatest threats. Automated risk assessment, biometric technology, the integration of cross-border facilities and personnel, and continued binational cooperation are essential to use the resources of both governments effectively
  • Enhanced Information Sharing. As technology evolves and data sharing standards develop, the U.S. and Canada should continue to share information to find that needle in the haystack. Fusion centers can enable collaboration and develop operational relationships that are critical to prevent and respond to threats. Biometrics-based watch lists and matching combined with border intelligence can enhance security and speed legitimate trade and travel through the borders
  • Shared Model for Incident Management. Due to the close proximity of high-level targets along the northern border, emergency personnel and first responders in both countries need to be familiar and trained on mutual emergency response standards and processes. Planned table-top and operational exercises are critical to making shared incident management models work on the ground

Figure 3 depicts these solutions, the benefits to the Government, and some demonstrated examples of success.

Recently, the U.S. and Canadian governments launched the U.S.-Canada Joint Border

Figure 3 The U.S. and Canada must focus resources in key areas to make a significant impact on border security for the Olympics and for the long-term.

Action Plan. Within the plan, federal, state, and local homeland security stakeholders seek action on border infrastructure and operations, border wait times and processing, increased use of frequent border crossing programs, and interoperable cross-border communication systems. Such cooperative partnerships are a model for future programs.

The complexity of the Vancouver/Seattle area and the potential threats to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games demands unprecedented cooperation across governments. This high profile event will be a critical test for homeland security operations in both governments – at the Federal and regional level.

Arc Aspicio © 2009 All Rights Reserved.

Author Bill Skerpan ( is a consulting analyst with Arc Aspicio. Arc Aspicio is a management consulting and information technology company that specializes in homeland security, border management, and emergency management.


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