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Image: Remote Patrol
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com

This story was originally published in Sept. 2002.

Stomping through the underbrush on his way to the nation’s northern frontier, U.S. Border Patrol agent-in-charge Carl Ecklund points to a pile of droppings and issues a warning to be on the lookout for bears. “Yeah, pretty fresh, too,” says Forest Service special agent Bill McConnell. It’s a momentary diversion. These agents are hunting much bigger prey: drug smugglers, illegal immigrants, even terrorists.

In this remote corner of northeast Washington state, along the edge of the Colville National Forest, only a handful of Border Patrol agents are assigned to guard nearly 60 miles of frontier in dense forests and barely passable terrain. Their job is formidable, and it has taken on a new urgency since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Nationwide, Border Patrol agents, along with help from the Forest Service, Customs agents and local law enforcement, monitor more than 5,000 miles of open northern border. They follow well-studied trafficking patterns, check out the occasional tip and pore over trickles of intelligence. But mostly they rely on intuition, vigilance and luck to catch people sneaking into the United States.

“I don’t have a good clear sense of what we might be missing,” says U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, a co-chair of the Northern Border Caucus whose rural district includes the Colville National Forest. While their counterparts down South get most of the money and attention, the northern Border Patrol agents quietly spend their time in the final miles short of the “slash,” as the border is called, scouring the land for the most subtle of hints.

Technically, agents are responsible for anyone who tries to cross onto American soil in between at least 90 ports of entry along the Canadian border. In the Northwest, much of that traffic consists of smugglers trying to bring in valuable “B.C. bud,” high-grade marijuana from British Columbia.

Worries mount
But agents along the border have seen everything imaginable coming across: cocaine, illegal aliens, banned herbicides, weapons — anything or anyone that would get flagged at an official border crossing. About 2,000 cases each year are referred for prosecution by INS agents in northern states.

And while the possibility of a potential terrorist hiking through the wilderness to enter the United States remains largely speculative, officials say it’s a matter of when, not if.

They point to the highest-profile terrorism arrest across the northern border: Ahmed Ressam, who admitted trying to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. But Canadian authorities have identified terror cells in Montreal, and a 20-year-old Ontario man, Mohamed Mansour Jabarah, reportedly admitted his ties to al-Qaida. And the drug trafficking long prevalent on the border has raised new concerns because some profits are allegedly funneled back to terror groups.

In the West, nearly the entire boundary between the Pacific Ocean and central Montana is wild federal land, much of it National Forest with only a scattering of rough roads.

Moving even a couple miles along the border can take half a day.

To make up for their thin ranks and a rugged topography that works against them, agents use snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles — and some deft use of covert technology — to survey their vast domain.

Map: Border crossing

Hoping for help
“Two-four-two, dash one and two,” the dispatcher’s voice squawks, calling off an activated border sensor. “Two-four-two, dash one and two.”

Border Patrol Agent Carl Ecklund waves to a hiker while patrolling near the border.
Ecklund is driving his white Ford Expedition, complete with radio bank and powered winch, along the edge of the Colville forest, listening to radio codes for the electronic gadgets that signal the presence of someone along the border.

The Border Patrol uses a variety of devices — including seismic meters, infrared equipment, magnetic sensors and remote video stations to help keep an electronic eye on some locations. In Idaho, officials are testing small drones that can fly over the border, providing a continuous view. Other devices can be dropped in as needed, though all equipment must either be placed where it can be powered or must have their own supply. Given how much terrain is off the electric grid, the option quite often is the latter.

Though a scarcity of resources and abundance of land offers little room for error, those responsible for guarding the nation’s northern edge wearily acknowledge it’s impossible to catch everyone.

“If we can pick a week out of the year … two out of three operations identifies a smuggler or some kind of illegal activity on the border,” says McConnell. “Either we’re awfully lucky or awfully good, or it’s happening an awful lot and we just don’t have the resources to deal with it.”

Fewer than 400 patrol agents are assigned along the 3,900-mile Canadian border with the contiguous 48 states, while over 9,000 are stationed on the southern border. Another 1,600 miles of border stretches along the eastern edge of Alaska, though no agents are stationed there.The Bush administration has approved at least 570 new agents a year over the coming two years, which would shrink the gaps, but that would still leave just one agent for each six miles.

The northern patrol is so challenging that Border Patrol policy requires any agent stationed there to first serve at least five years on the Mexican border. Even then, new agents face a long training regime to learn the backwoods of the north.

Ground work
Complicating their job is legitimate foot traffic near the border. Hikers and animals can trip monitors and send a false alert. At best, agents can time alerts from a sequence of sensors and assess who — or what — might be headed through.

Quite often, nothing can replace old-fashioned human surveillance, so agents disguise themselves as campers or loggers and take to the woods for several days at a time.

The last few hundred yards of most public roads going north are blocked with “Kelly humps,” large ditches and dirt mounds to stop even the most rugged vehicles. Agents can sometimes just wait on a main road and catch someone as they emerge from the brush — letting the suspect do all the legwork.

“Even if we’re not here to work something,” Ecklund says as he stands by a cattle fence on the border just yards shy of a Canadian farmhouse, “we have miles that we can work stuff.”

What the Border Patrol really lacks is a top-down intelligence system to match the reality on the ground. Patrol headquarters has a barebones staff to compile and filter intelligence data. Little, if anything, comes through other security agencies unless those agencies get a specific request or are working a case together with the Border Patrol. At times, agents get better information from their counterparts across the border.

“There’s nothing like patrolling the region to know how it really works. And these guys have a sense that some guy in a climate-controlled office will never have, so you want those insights of those guys on the ground. But they should be getting that support,” says Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on border security. “The real investment is not bodies at the front border. The real investment needs to be made in the folks who do the analysis work and some of the liaison work.”

Canada's burden
Canada and the United States have begun that investment by working closer together to monitor the frontier. But Canada faces its own daunting challenges in keeping track of the 250,000 new immigrants who arrive each year.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sgt. Dudley Powell-Williams, left, patrols the swath with his partner near Waneta, B.C.

America’s northern neighbor relies on robust immigration to expand an otherwise stagnant population base. For those who consider U.S. immigration policy an open door, Canada’s is an eight-lane freeway. Nearly twice as many Canadians are foreign born — almost one in five — as Americans. Though Canada’s population is about one-tenth that of the United States, both nations receive about 30,000 asylum applications a year.

The asylum program creates much apprehension, in part because many terror suspects — including Ressam — claimed refugee status and then vanished before their scheduled asylum hearing. By one estimate, a quarter never show up for the hearings, often held years after a claimant’s arrival.

“We don’t know where they’ve gone. We don’t even know who the hell they are,” says James Bissett, a former Canadian ambassador and director of Immigration Canada, that nation’s equivalent to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. “We say, ‘See you fellas in about two years when your refugee hearing is held.’”

This is the other half of the border security equation. Many Canadians have no interest in absorbing those who unsuccessfully seek asylum in the United States and then head north, and Canadian authorities also worry about illicit funds and weapons being smuggled north.

Now, the Bush administration and Canadian leaders have agreed to a program that includes jointly pressuring third countries to accept deportees.

“If it’s a concern to the U.S. as far as people entering who should not be there,” says Sgt. Dudley Powell-Williams of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Ecklund’s counterpart on the other side of the border, “then obviously it’s a concern to us for them to be exiting.”

Forest Service Special Investigator Bill McConnell keeps an eye out for bears while hiking through thick under brush on his way to check the swath north of Colville, Washington.

Most border counties are rural, with sheriffs and police already strained by small staffs and large coverage areas. Suspects who cross the border may be picked up for other crimes —often state crimes with separate penalties — and most people arrested by federal agents must be housed in local facilities until they can be transferred. In Stevens County, Wash., where Ecklund’s office is located, the 44-bed jail is almost always over capacity and deputies often must spend hours helping transfer federal prisoners. It’s a difficult situation for cash-strapped counties, but they hope their assistance will ultimately make their towns safer.

“We foster that cooperation, and I think it needs to be modeled upon for the rest of the country,” says Stevens County Sheriff Craig Thayer. “It’s an international problem, it’s a national problem, but when it comes right down to it, it’s local.”

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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