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On borders and trade, Obama policy suspiciously familiar

As we wait to see whether Obama will ask Congress to ratify new free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia, we’re reminded of the flipside of U.S. trade policy: border control and excessive surveillance.

On April 24, we learned that U.S. authorities had diverted a flight from Paris to Mexico, forcing it to make an unplanned stop in Martinique, all because one journalist, Hernando Calvo Ospina of Le Monde in France, happened to be on board and on a U.S. no-fly list.

Ospina’s publisher told the media he was likely blacklisted by request from the CIA, which the journalist was researching for his next book. Ospina “has written favorably about Cuba, has denounced the rightwing Colombian government of Alvaro Uribe, and has been critical of the U.S. role in Latin America,” according to The Progressive.

Blocking people from the United States, or increasingly Canada, for political reasons is not new. What is new is blocking them from travelling over top of the territorial U.S. of A, even when they won’t be landing.

The Times of London reports that Air France “had not sent US authorities the passenger manifest. However, it sent one to Mexico, which apparently sent the list on. The crew were informed of the ban as they approached US airspace.”

So Mexican airlines or officials are sending passenger information to the United States and know their Canadian counterparts are doing the same, as outlined in the Smart Border Declaration and Action Plan, which were never voted on in Parliament.

Smart Border meet Secure Flight

There doesn’t seem to be any indication that the French plane was diverted under the new U.S. Secure Flight program, which was announced as operational by the Transportation Security Administration on March 31. But there is no doubt that this program will make these awkward, costly and annoying detours around the territorial United States more common in future.

Secure flight “shifts pre-departure watch list matching responsibilities from individual aircraft operators to TSA and carries out a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission,” according to the release.

“The implementation of Secure Flight is a critical step towards mitigating threats we know exist in our aviation system,” said TSA Acting Administrator Gale Rossides. “Secure Flight improves security and protects passenger privacy and civil liberties by ensuring the confidentiality of government watch list matching protocols.”

Ospina was hardly a threat to the security of the plane or the United States. It’s examples like this that have Canadian civil liberties groups worried about the effect Secure Flight will have on Canada also.

“The Americans will have a veto on every passenger that gets on a plane in Canada, even if they are not going to set foot on American soil,” said Roch Tassé of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group in an article in Alternatives this February. So Secure Flight slaps an important caveat on the Smart Border Declaration promise to share information – it says that when you share that information, we will use it to determine who can enter into or even fly over the United States.

The Alternatives article notes that “Tassé is also concerned because of the differences that exist between Canadian and American international policies, given that this program theoretically cedes to the United States control over immigration, refugee seekers and even diplomacy.”

“What will happen if Canada invites the ambassador from a country such as Cuba?” asks Tassé, answering that he believes Secure Flight will have the effect of harmonizing Canadian visa policies with respect to the Americans.

Of course Cuba and the Obama administration are now buddies so the example may be outdated. But what of Colombia union activists fighting the free trade agreements with both Canada and the United States? Is there radical support for human rights and fair working conditions also a threat to the security of the United States, in which case their flights could be diverted?

President Obama may want to shut Guantanamo Bay eventually, but on border controls and surveillance policies like Secure Flight, he’s acting like a twig off the old Bush.

Related reading:

Ridiculing US Official Just Made Your Border Wait Longer: http://thetyee.ca/News/2009/04/27/Napolitano/

Bush’s Trade Pact Won’t Fly, by James P. Hoffa of the Teamsters: http://www.teamster.org/content/bushs-trade-pact-wont-fly-0