The Border Patrol's tower-mounted cameras intensify the watch for terrorists, illegal aliens

Along the border, a new eye on security

News Staff Reporter

As reported in the Buffalo News September 9 2004
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Ronald J. Colleran/Buffalo News
William J. Coughlin monitors surveillance camera scenes along the Niagara River from the Border Patrol's office on Grand Island Boulevard in the Town of Tonawanda.


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Ronald J. Colleran/Buffalo News
Cameras mounted on a tower serve as an eye on the area of Fort Niagara State Park.



YOUNGSTOWN - Hikers and boaters now can see two tall and imposing reminders of the changes caused by 9/11 in one of the region's prettiest waterfront communities.

The U.S. Border Patrol has erected surveillance camera towers on the shores of the Niagara River in Fort Niagara State Park here and in Joseph Davis State Park in nearby Lewiston. Federal agents use the cameras mounted on the towers to scan for terrorists or people trying to enter the nation illegally.

And over the next year, the federal agency plans to erect 14 more watchtowers in Niagara Falls, Grand Island, the Town of Tonawanda, Buffalo and Hamburg, completing an electronic surveillance network stretching from Youngstown to Hamburg.

"These cameras will be a huge help. They will scan miles of waterfront, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Ed Duda, deputy chief of patrol for the Border Patrol's Buffalo sector. "We'll also have infrared cameras, so the system will be most effective at night."

In 2000, when the government first floated the idea of building surveillance towers in the region, some Niagara County residents were upset, voicing concerns that their privacy would be violated.

But now, nearly three years after the 9/11 attacks, Youngstown Mayor Neil Riordan says he hasn't heard one complaint about the towers, which became operational in mid-August.

Village officials have been assured that the cameras will be used strictly for homeland security and that there will be no invasions of residents' privacy, Riordan said.

"I saw the cameras for the first time when I was out for a walk a couple of weeks ago. It made me kind of sad to think we've had to go to such extremes," said the Rev. Rex T. Stewart, pastor of First Presbyterian Church. "I understand why the government is doing it, but I hope it doesn't lead to abuses. . . . I don't want Big Brother watching me."

Border Patrol officials said they are sensitive to such concerns.

They said two other surveillance towers have been in use since spring 2002, with no citizen complaints about invasions of privacy. One of the towers is near the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge in Lewiston. The other is near the Whirlpool Bridge in Niagara Falls.

"We walk the balance beam between homeland security and protecting the privacy of law-abiding citizens, and we take that very seriously," Duda said. "We're not going to use these cameras to monitor somebody who is sitting out in the park, having a picnic."

Duda showed a reporter how the cameras can be monitored from Border Patrol offices in the Town of Tonawanda. A dispatcher sits before a bank of video screens. Each screen shows a different location being scanned by one of the cameras. The dispatcher can zoom in to get a closer look at any person, boat or vehicle that looks suspicious.

The cameras are powerful enough to pick up the rough outlines of Toronto's SkyDome and CN Tower but not powerful enough to see the facial expressions of two fishermen sitting in a boat off Joseph Davis State Park.

"This system helps us the most at night, when most illegal crossings of the river are made," Duda said.

The main intent behind the system of cameras is to prevent terrorism and keep illegal aliens out of the country, Duda said.

Two months ago, an infrared camera detected a group of people making a dangerous night river crossing into Lewiston. A dispatcher was able to direct agents to the spot where the raft was crossing, and several illegal aliens were arrested, Duda said.

The new tower in Fort Niagara State Park is 60 feet tall, and the tower at nearby Joseph Davis State Park is 80 feet. Officials said each tower costs about $318,000.

The Border Patrol is working with local governments to authorize the construction of 14 more towers, which the agency hopes to build over the next year, said Donald Palacios, assistant chief of the agency's Buffalo sector.

Sue MacNaughton, a Youngstown resident and shopkeeper, sees the towers as a sad sign of the times.

"If 9/11 hadn't happened, the community might be reacting differently," MacNaughton said. "I guess (the towers) are a necessity. It seems that 9/11 has changed our lives forever, and that's just unfortunate."

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