The unsettling thing about living in a surveillance society isn't just that you're being watched. It's that you have no idea. That's what struck me...

The unsettling thing about living in a surveillance society isn’t just that you’re being watched. It’s that you have no idea.

That’s what struck me about a story told last week by a border agent at a meeting of 200 San Juan Islanders. He was there to explain why the federal government is doing citizenship checks on domestic ferry runs.But near the end, while trying to convince the skeptical audience that the point is to root out terrorists, not fish for wrongdoing among the citizenry, deputy chief Joe Giuliano let loose with a tale straight out of “Dr. Strangelove.”

It turns out the feds have been monitoring Interstate 5 for nuclear “dirty bombs.” They do it with radiation detectors so sensitive it led to the following incident.

“Vehicle goes by at 70 miles per hour,” Giuliano told the crowd. “Agent is in the median, a good 80 feet away from the traffic. Signal went off and identified an isotope [in the passing car].”

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The agent raced after the car, pulling it over not far from the monitoring spot (near the Bow-Edison exit, 18 miles south of Bellingham). The agent questioned the driver, then did a cursory search of the car, Giuliano said.

Did he find a nuke?

“Turned out to be a cat with cancer that had undergone a radiological treatment three days earlier,” Giuliano said.

He added: “That’s the type of technology we have that’s going on in the background. You don’t see it. If I hadn’t told you about it, you’d never know it was there.”

About all I can say is: Wow. Wow that the government now has the ability to detect radiation in a cat inside a car going by at 70 miles per hour. And wow at this world we live in, where we feel compelled to sniff, at random, inside the traffic coming out of Bellingham.

What else is the government watching? Is it all too much?

We’re watching lots, said Giuliano when I called him. Giuliano is No. 2 in the border patrol’s Blaine sector. He is refreshingly open about the surge of post-Sept. 11 surveillance, and its pros and cons.

From bomb sniffing to bank monitoring of the kind that brought down Eliot Spitzer to phone and Internet data crunching to citizenship checkpoints — all are becoming commonplaces of American life.

Giuliano says the point really is to catch terrorists. He says it’s true that the odds of catching one here may be “a billion to one. But despite that, we have caught two.” (Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, who tried to sneak in at Blaine in 1997 to blow up the New York subway; and Millennium Bomber Ahmed Ressam, nabbed at Port Angeles in 1999.)

“There’s your one or two in a billion, looking right at you.”

It’s a good point. Yet even he, a federal agent for 35 years, is queasy about the snooping’s reach. He said he opposes parts of the Patriot Act, namely the section that expands warrantless searches.

“I think we can do this without tossing out our checks and balances,” he said.

The debate has the San Juans abuzz. While we’re doing citizenship checks, why not also do it in Seattle? Is it constitutional? Does the story of the radioactive cat reassure you? Or creep you out?

Said San Juan County Councilman Kevin Ranker: “I think it’s fair to say many people up here have been left wondering just what kind of country it is they’re living in.”

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or