The arrests of six people linked to attempts to smuggle terrorists and bombs into the United States through Canada are spurring renewed efforts by congressional conservatives and law enforcement officials to stiffen controls across the U.S.-Canadian border.
Some Canadian investigative agencies, a prominent Republican subcommittee chairman, and a leading Washington think-tank want the U.S. Border Patrol beefed up and are calling for other stringent enforcement measures.
But what worries members of Congress from northern border districts, including Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, are attempts to use the arrests as an excuse to implement a controversial system of border checks on home-bound Canadian tourists by American agents.
LaFalce and others have warned that these "Checkpoint Charlies" -- a reference to the Cold War border crossing at the Berlin Wall -- would cause miles of traffic backups at all Niagara River crossing points and inflict another blow to the struggling Western New York economy.
Under a law passed in 1996, U.S. agents would check the documents and grill all Canadian tourists and overseas visitors heading north. Because of opposition from the Canadian government and northern border members of Congress, implementation has been delayed several times. However, current law requires implementation by March 31, 2001.
LaFalce insists some are overdramatizing the potential risks of the basically open Canadian border to justify implementation of new inspection stations.
The emerging fight over rigid new border controls could spill over into the upcoming Senate race between first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, according to one Canadian expert on terrorism.
The prime backer of these checkpoints, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, last week called the arrest on Dec. 14 of Ahmed Ressam in Washington state "a loud wake-up call" about the hazards of the relaxed U.S.-Canadian border.
Smith told a hearing of the House immigration subcommittee, of which he is chairman, that Ressam, an Algerian, was caught by U.S. agents "with hundreds of pounds of sophisticated bomb-making materials."
Terrorism experts think Ressam was planning up to four massive attacks on the scale of the Oklahoma federal building, or World Trade Towers bombings.
One witness, Christopher Sands, predicted that the Clinton administration will soon deploy more personnel and resources at the Canadian border to counter the threat of terrorism.
In part due to the arrests of Ressam and Lucia Garafalo, a Canadian woman with alleged ties to Algerian terrorists, the White House asked the U.S. Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol to devise a comprehensive counterterrorism plan for the border.
All these agencies have renewed long-standing requests for more agents.
The Border Patrol has for years complained to Congress that the administration has given it only 300 agents to handle the 4,000-mile northern border.
Garofalo was arraigned Thursday in Burlington, Vt., on a charge of attempted illegal entry. Others with alleged links to Ressam include Abdel Majid Dahoumane, indicted as Ressam's accomplice; Mohambedou Ould Slahi, Ressam's alleged leader being held in Senegal; Abdel Ghani Meskini, a Ressam associate charged in New York; Mokhtar Harouari, under arrest in Canada on charges he masterminded the whole Ressam plot.
LaFalce said the U.S. government clearly needs to spend more money on border controls.
At the same time, LaFalce said, Smith's hearing showed that international terrorism appears to be on the decline and that enhanced publicity about the dangers on the Canadian border "increases the possibility of that danger significantly."
"Domestic terrorism is at least as dangerous, and probably much more so, than international terrorism," LaFalce said. "For example, Timothy McVeigh, a native of Western New York, was principally responsible for the death of 168 people -- the worst terrorist act of this decade." He was referring to the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
LaFalce took aim at Smith's pet project, the northern border checkpoints.
He quoted Philip Wilcox, the Clinton administration's former counterterrorism coordinator, as saying the checkpoints "would have no effect on domestic terrorism, and they would be very expensive, thus diverting resources from other more effective law enforcement and security programs."
Smith railed at the failure to install these "exit controls". This lapse, he insisted, helped create a situation "where terrorists, and also illegal aliens, alien smugglers, and drug smugglers, are increasingly using Canada as a transit country en route to the U.S."
"Ahmed Ressam proved that those in the U.S. who argue that accused terrorists don't enter at checkpoints are wrong," Smith said. "While it won't stop all terrorists, an entry-exit system will deter them because they could no longer slip across the border without a trace."
Ressam, who has been arrested several times since 1994 in Canada and let go, was arrested by U.S. agents in Port Angeles, Wash. They said they found contraband in the car Ressam drove off a ferry arriving from Victoria, B.C.
Ressam was actually attracted to the U.S. checkpoint because security at the northern border is notoriously lax, Gary Stubblefield, an international security consultant, testified at Smith's hearing. They think "our border. . .is a joke," he said.
Sands, a Canadian expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, thinks the arrests of Ressam, Garofalo and the others will tempt more terrorists to try entering the U.S. through Canada.
Sands said that in New York the issue "cuts both ways."
"In upstate New York, the border is part of daily life and commerce for thousands," Sands said. Giuliani is likely to put Democrat Hillary Clinton "on the defensive based on the response, or non-response, of the Clinton administration to border security with Canada.
"If checks at the border are tightened, it could hurt Clinton with upstate voters. If nothing is done, Giuliani will likely charge that the administration is leaving New Yorkers vulnerable by refusing to secure the northern border against terrorism."
Despite the potential politics, members of the House and Senate of both parties from northern districts are planning to meet some time next month to counter Smith's attempts to piggy back his checkpoints initiative on the mounting worries over desperate aliens sneaking across the border.
Bureau assistant Michael Davitiashvili contributed to this article.