11/18/2011 04:09 EST | Updated 01/18/2012 05:12 EST

Canada Perimeter Security Deal: Feds Fear U.S. Losing Interest

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OTTAWA - Canadian officials are worried the much hyped perimeter security deal with the United States will wither on the vine like past failed attempts, newly released documents show.

A paper trail of more than 600 pages reveals that work on the landmark pact stretches back at least 17 months, when senior U.S. security officials visited Prime Minister Stephen Harper's key bureaucrats in Ottawa.

One year ago, as officials moved towards a final outline of the deal, the senior Public Safety bureaucrat orchestrating the plan stressed the importance of ensuring it didn't wind up getting shelved after being announced.

In an email to a colleague, Artur Wilczynski, Public Safety's director of international affairs, pointed to a crucial meeting of deputy ministers later that month that would finalize Canada's final position on several issues.

"The most critical one is the follow-up or implementation mechanism."

The email is a part of a sweeping collection of memos, correspondence and draft documents that make up a heavily censored package obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The perimeter arrangement is an attempt to protect the continent from terrorist threats while speeding the flow of people and products across the 49th parallel. Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama met last February to announce a broad road map of the initiative, with a formal "action plan" to come later in the year.

But little has been said publicly since.

Though it has been ready for weeks, the next step in the border initiative is expected to be announced only next month when Harper travels to Washington for another meeting with Obama.

Sources say Harper has been waiting for an opportunity to sign the deal in a high-profile setting with the U.S. president. Involvement of the two leaders would give the continental deal a stamp of importance intended to ensure its elements don't get shuffled to the bureaucratic back burner.

There is a strong sense the deal is more important to Canada, which is heavily dependent on trade with the U.S., than it is to Washington. Obama will soon be entering a campaign year, a period when the particulars of an international accord could easily fall off the table.

The perimeter security deal, as outlined to The Canadian Press by several sources, includes about $1 billion in spending on border-post infrastructure and information-sharing programs to bring Canada more closely in line with the U.S.

The Beyond the Border action plan will bolster common identification of security threats, align the countries' food and auto industries, and reduce red tape for cross-border shippers and frequent travellers, said sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the finalized deal has not been publicly announced.

The pact is the latest attempt in a decade-long effort since the 9-11 attacks to make the Canada-U.S. border work more efficiently, while guarding against terrorist threats. The most recent failure to achieve this was the trilateral Security and Prosperity Partnership that also included Mexico, which died after the election of the Conservative government in 2006.

Draft media lines for the initial rollout of the current perimeter security deal, marked "Secret," ask whether the new pact is another Security and Prosperity Partnership.

"No," the plan states. "We will work with all levels of government to advance our objectives. Engaging industries, communities and non-governmental organizations will help us innovate and approach security in a way that also advances our economic interests, civil liberties and human rights."

The Security and Prosperity Partnership had been criticized for its lack of transparency and little engagement of civil society groups.

Sources say the perimeter deal will include — as Wilczynski hoped — built-in structures aimed at ensuring things happen on schedule or, as one insider put it, "a kind of constant implementation effort."

To drum up interest in the budding arrangement, the government sent letters to various business and industry leaders soliciting their support late last year.

Among these were the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, the Canadian Society of Customs Brokers and the Canadian Trucking Alliance, the internal memos indicate.

There's no suggestion the bureaucrats consulted with civil society groups, including labour organizations or rights advocates. Some observers have since criticized the deal as a threat to Canadian sovereignty.

The documents show it took six months of secret, behind-the-scenes slogging between several Canadian government departments and their counterparts in the U.S. to draft the first outline of the deal.

In one case, a few words carried a weighty message.

In late July last year, the RCMP requested the words "Rule of Law" be inserted into a declaration of principles entitled "Our shared vision" — a signal the Mounties were concerned about respect for Canada's own legal framework.

That declaration survived and was part of the final joint statement of principles that Harper and Obama eventually announced in February.

When an early White House draft of the statement landed in August last year at the Privy Council Office, it was quickly forwarded to the top bureaucrats of several departments, setting off a flurry of reaction.

"Please find attached the draft border vision that has been shared with PCO by the White House," writes Wilczynski in an Aug. 23, 2010, email to almost four dozen public servants in several departments.

In another email three days later, Wilczynski adds: "I think it's important for us to engage the White House on the substance of the draft text as soon as possible."

Canadian independence was clearly on the government's radar from the earliest days of the negotiations.

A draft set of questions and answers from last December pointedly asks: "Does perimeter security violate our sovereignty?"

The answer was an emphatic no.

"We value and respect our constitutional and legal frameworks. To keep our citizens safe and secure it makes sense to share information in accordance with our respective legal frameworks and to work together at the perimeter."