U.S. inspector succeeded where Canadians bungled

Jack Knox Times Colonist Thursday, July 28, 2005

Too late for my big idea of every Canadian coming off the Coho in Port Angeles buying Diana Dean a beer today.

Dean, the U.S. Customs inspector who tripped up terrorist Ahmed Ressam as he was exiting the ferry from Victoria, retired to the American Midwest recently.

Ressam, dubbed the Millennium Bomber for his plot to blow up L.A. International Airport on the last night of 1999, was sentenced to 22 years Wednesday.

Dean deserves our thanks for succeeding where Ottawa failed so miserably -- though the attention may make her squirm. She was almost bashful the last time I talked to her, more grateful than proud, and sobered by the thought of the horror that would have ensued had her internal radar not gone off on Dec. 14, 1999.

Ressam's rented Chrysler was the last of 20 cars to leave the Coho that day. The car had B.C. plates, but his driver's licence identified him as Benni Noris of Montreal.

Where you going? asked Dean. "Sattle," came the reply from the fidgety, nervous Ressam, who was rummaging around the console. Dean decided to do a secondary search and gave him a customs card to fill out, keeping his hands busy. When fellow inspector Mark Johnson asked Ressam for more ID, he pulled out a Costco card. Johnson took him to a table to check his pockets.

When another inspector popped the trunk and pulled the cover off the spare-tire well, he found bomb ingredients -- plastic bags of white powder, olive jars full of liquid and a couple of ibuprofen bottles containing a detonator so volatile that removing the bottle caps could have triggered an explosion.

All hell broke loose. So did Ressam, shrugging free of the coat inspectors were holding and hot-footing it into downtown Port Angeles. He made it a few blocks, and even tried to force his way into a car stopped at a red light, but the woman at the wheel locked the doors and stomped on the gas. Inspectors jumped him.

Dramatic stuff. Wouldn't have been necessary, though, if Ottawa's dealings with Ressam hadn't resembled an episode of Kanadian Keystone Kops.

Ressam, an Algerian, arrived in Canada in 1994 with a French passport that was found to be fake. He claimed refugee status, telling authorities he had been jailed for selling arms to Algerian insurgents. The refugee claim was rejected in 1995, as was an appeal in 1996, but Canada wouldn't deport him to troubled Algeria. So Ressam lived in Montreal, surviving on welfare and theft.

CSIS, the Canadian intelligence agency, began watching Ressam in 1996. Police, armed with an immigration warrant and theft charges from Montreal and Vancouver, started looking for him in 1998, but by then, he had gone for terrorist training in Afghanistan. CSIS reportedly warned Canadian and U.S. authorities about the "jihad training," but Ressam was still able to slip back into the country in 1999, on a Canadian passport issued under a fake name.

To summarize: Canada catches a convicted arms-seller lying his way into the country, but lets him stay because Algeria might be mean to him. He bleeds Canadian taxpayers, gets caught stealing and is known to have graduated from Blow Up An Airport School, but gets back into the country because obtaining a valid Canadian passport under a phony name proves easier than getting the aforementioned Costco card. It seems Ottawa dealing with terrorists is like a dog chasing a car; it can catch them, but doesn't know what to do after that.

At least that's how it was pre-9/11. After that, we went lurching off in the opposite direction: anthrax panics, security certificates, border delays, a population that dutifully and docilely arrives three days early at the airport, allowing time for the cavity search. The sneaking suspicion is the new security measures constipating our lives have less to do with vigilance than paranoia, and more to do with bureaucratic flailing than public safety. We still have no confidence in Ottawa's ability to deal with real threats such as Ressam.

The world has lowered the bar when it comes to what it will tolerate from Big Brother. Guantanamo Bay. Detention without trial. Ubiquitous closed-circuit cameras. Biometrics. Amber alerts in the U.S. and a tar pit of a war in Iraq. British police pump five shots into the head of a Brazilian on a Tube train and we shrug and say "he shouldn't have run." We can understand how it happened and accept it could happen again.

U.S. government spending has risen a staggering 33 per cent since 2001, thanks largely to war and security spending. Four years ago, 300 American border agents guarded the Canadian frontier; now it's 1,000. Some U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors carry radiation detectors on their belts, sniffing for "dirty bombs."

You could see some of the black-clad inspectors amiably chatting to people in the Coho queue on Wednesday. Clearing security on the ferry still isn't an onerous process, but U.S. officials now screen passengers in Victoria before they board for Port Angeles, where cameras link to a security centre in Blaine.

"Our mission has changed," says Mike Milne, the border agency's press officer in Seattle. Customs inspectors used to worry about keeping out drugs and garden variety ne'er-do-wells. Now they're preoccupied with people who want to blow up airports.

After 9/11 and London and Ahmed Ressam, whose twisted path led through Victoria, who can blame them?

Times Colonist (Victoria) 2005