But Homeland Security officials have made little progress in deploying license plate readers to identify vehicles supporting the flights.
The Homeland Security Department this fall plans to employ military-grade radar feeds from Canada to spot low-altitude aircraft smuggling drugs, but officials have not stationed any license-plate cameras to catch vehicles carrying the cash that funds such illicit flights.
While drug trafficking is more prevalent along the southern border than the U.S.-Canadian border, the narcotics trade often goes undetected on the northern border, according to recent reports by federal auditors. Responding to congressional concerns, Alan Bersin, the top official at Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection, said on Tuesday, "We expect that 22 Canadian radar feeds will be sent to the [CBP's] Air and Marine Operations Center by the third quarter, November 2011."
It's hard to measure the extent of illegal cross-border activity because northern drug runners often transport their cargo on low-flying planes that CBP technology cannot see, Government Accountability Office auditors reported in December 2010. In 2008, Border Protection agents in Spokane, Wash., an entry point popular among high-potency marijuana dealers, borrowed Pentagon radar equipment for a month to gain greater visibility into the region's wild terrain. The experiment pinpointed significantly more aircraft than the number of planes normally identified in a given year.
"We've had a major problem on the northern border with the smuggling of drugs -- methamphetamines and ecstasy as well as marijuana -- and these drugs are smuggled into the country using low-flying planes," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told Bersin during a Judiciary Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Subcommittee hearing where the CBP commissioner was invited to discuss northern border security. In February, Schumer urged Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to permanently deploy military radar for counternarcotics operations; he said he welcomed the November start date.
However, Homeland Security has not made any headway in setting up computerized cameras along the northern border to flag cars funneling the dollars and guns that fuel the drug trade.
"If we can find a way to stop the money, then we can go a long way to defeating the cartels," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Citing March GAO statistics, he added, "ATF officers at the U.S.-Mexico border have indicated that one of their challenges in intercepting illegal firearms heading south is the ability to provide vehicle information to CBP officers on a timely basis."
Currently, license plate readers are attached to only 48 of the 118 outbound lanes on the southwest border, according to the auditors. "And none has been installed -- none -- on the 179 outbound lanes on the northern border," Cornyn noted.
Bersin acknowledged CBP has more work to do. "I cannot give you a definite date on which we will have all lanes completed with regard to [license plate readers]," he said.
Federal officials are trying not to slow legitimate traffic along the U.S.-Canadian border, which facilitates trade valued at more than $1 billion a day, Bersin said.
"Building up a competitive United States economy in concert with Canada, so that North America can compete with East Asia, with the Indian subcontinent and with Brazil and South America is a critical dimension of our work," he said. "We recognize that security and economic competitiveness go hand in hand."