Security: working with the Trump Administration

Jan 24, 2017

To the shock and horror of the ‘we know best’ crowd in both the U.S. and Canada, somehow Donald Trump actually won the Presidential election and has now been sworn in as the President of the (sort of) United States of America. His Inaugural Address was unusual in its political nature, but there is little doubt that America is likely heading towards domestic protectionism and international isolationism. Should that occur, there could be significant consequences for Canada including in the border security realm.

If Canada is successful in working with the new Trump administration to achieve mutual security objectives, that could well have positive influence on how the now present economic issues unfold, including cross border trade. The converse, however, is also true, and this could extend beyond direct Canada-U.S. security issues in light of the potentially looming U.S. confrontation with China, and the Trudeau government’s opposite approach of increased cozying up to China (which is alarming).

The Trump administration has signaled several guiding principles that it intends to follow in security and international affairs. These include achieving specific results, prioritizing perceived American ‘interests’, and having foreign countries appropriately contribute to joint activities. To help deliver these results, President Trump has selected several Cabinet Secretaries and Advisors with senior military experience including retired generals Flynn (National Security Advisor), Mattis (Defence Secretary) and General Kelly (DHS Secretary).

Astutely, Justin Trudeau  has just promoted former Canadian general Andrew Leslie, who knows these senior U.S. leaders, to the position of Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Global Affairs Canada. He is also is part of the Canada-U.S. Affairs Cabinet Committee. Personal relationships always matter in international affairs, and that is likely to be even more so the case in the Trump Administration. Assuming, of course, that President Trump listens to his officials.

On the Canada-U.S. border security file, the most relevant factor may turn out to be the previously negotiated Beyond the Border (BTB) Agreement and supporting Action Plan. The BTB is unique in that it provides remarkably specific initiatives with defined outcomes, timelines and assigned responsibilities. Many of the assigned tasks and goals have been completed, but several have not – and getting this done will support the new President’s desire to display ‘accomplishments’ that his predecessor did not.

Examples of these outstanding BTB initiatives include completing the Exit-Entry plan and the Pre-Border Clearance Agreement. The U.S. government has enacted legislation to authorize these initiatives but in Canada the legislation remains stalled at First Reading in the House of Commons. C-21 expands the current Entry-Exit program which is restricted to sharing biographical information between Canada and the U.S. on non-citizens that depart from one country and enter the other at land border crossings. The agreement is currently being used for administrative purposes to simply reconcile internal records in both countries rather than to enhance real time admissibility decision making, which is an improvement that should be made. C-21 will extend the information sharing to Canadian and U.S. citizens and will authorize Canadian gathering and retention of information of persons leaving Canada at airports as well, although that data will not be shared with the U.S. government.  

The legislation authorizing the Pre-Border Clearance Agreement (C-23) is also languishing in Parliament. Hopefully the Government will prioritize its passage in light of the new US government. The Agreement provides specific authorizations for Canada and U.S. border enforcement officers to work in each other’s countries, which could also assist as a template for expansion of joint cross border enforcement operations such as the current Shiprider program. It might also result in finally getting Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) mandated to operate between ports of entry, which is currently, absurdly, not the case.

A third stalled initiative from the BTB Action Plan is the joint procurement and deployment of sensor technologies at the Canada-U.S. border to detect illegal crossings and thereby support intelligence-led interdiction operations. Canada announced a plan to start this important action in 2013 with a $92M allocation to the RCMP. The following year the same funds were re-profiled to the RCMP-led Border Integrity Technology Enhancement Program (BITEP) but, to date, nothing has happened. It is unclear whether this inaction is due to RCMP procurement problems or U.S. interagency infighting, or both, but there is probably no single greater improvement that could be delivered than by getting this joint technology and operations enhancement finally accomplished. The technologies involved are proven and indeed partially operationally deployed, with real success, so hopefully this will be priority and deliverable #1 for the new Canada-U.S. border security relationship.  

Another key issue that is consistent with the BTB Agreement is the need for enhanced screening and information sharing for persons seeking entry to Canada or the United States. This is already underway, as recently demonstrated by Canada having shared data with the U.S. on proposed Syrian refugees being admitted to Canada. Both countries are also part of a biometric data sharing agreement among Five Eyes allies that is designed to detect and interdict inadmissible persons.

It is also likely that there will be real progress made on enhancing joint ‘bad guy’ databases (biometric and biographic) and lookout systems focused on all past deportees, criminal inadmissibility, and national security threats and inadmissibility. The recent launch of Canada’s Electronic Travel Authorization program will contribute this effort as it constitutes at least some screening of persons from non-visa countries such as EU members that are, unfortunately, increasingly infected with violent Islamist jihadists. CBSA is also working to implement its Advance Passenger Information (API) initiative whereby persons seeking to fly to Canada will be screened before departure rather than after takeoff, which is currently the case.

There are, however, issues which could be problematic going forward. The Trudeau government’s decision to develop closer relations with China, particularly entering into operational agreements on cyber security, border operations and organized crime, and contemplating allowing foreign investment in seaports, including from China, will definitely raise eyebrows in the U.S. security world. If Canada shares security information with China, will the U.S. be comfortable sharing information with Canada?

Another issue on the horizon is the increasing number of persons illegally in the U.S. who are now sneaking into Canada and claiming ‘refugee’ status. This is compounded by the current dramatic increase of Mexicans, who are now illegally in the US, seeking refugee status in Canada despite the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement that was designed to prevent this. This Canadian security gap is self-created – thanks to the Trudeau government’s ill-advised decision to lift the visa requirement for Mexico, which changes the rules regarding exemptions from the Safe Third Country Agreement. Detecting and removing inadmissible persons is in both countries' best interests, and modernizing the cross-border agreement that supports it is an important step that needs to be achieved.

In summary, there are tangible border security improvements that may be achieved with a results-focused Trump Administration now at the table. At the same time, there are potentially problematic issues looming that could be successfully resolved through informed and pragmatic discussions. Stay tuned.

Scott Newark is a former Alberta Crown Prosecutor who has also served as Executive Officer of the Canadian Police Association, Vice Chair of the Ontario Office for Victims of Crime, Director of Operations to the Washington D.C.-based Investigative Project on Terrorism and as a Security Policy Advisor to the Governments of Ontario and Canada