High-Tech Border Fence Is Slow Going

Richard A. Serrano, Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2010

An ambitious, multibillion-dollar project to hot-wire the new Southwest border fence with high-tech radar, cameras and satellite signals has been plagued with serious system failures and repeated delays and will probably not be completed for another seven years–if it is finished at all.

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“It was a great idea, but it didn’t work,” said Mark Borkowski, executive director of the electronic fence program at the Homeland Security Department.

“One of the kickers was that these radars had too many problems with clutter,” Borkowski said. “Wind moving a tree shows up on the radar. And if you have too much of that, how do you find the person in the clutter? Same with cameras. The image is blurry.”

The problems have prompted Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to order a department-wide assessment of the technology project once billed as the capstone to the controversial 2,000-mile combined physical and electronic border fence.

Borkowski acknowledged in an interview that the government and its main contractor, Boeing Co., had made a series of mistakes since announcing in 2005 the plan to build sensor towers and radar scans alongside the new border fence.

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He said the government was primarily to blame for not being more specific in its contract with Boeing. But, he added, “we have a border we’ve got to secure, and technology has to be a key part of the plan. It’s not there. So what do we do in the meantime?”

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Although the testing has taken longer than planned, costing about $20 million so far, Peters [Tim Peters, vice president of Boeing Global Security Systems] said a much-improved high-tech system would evolve.

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Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the nonprofit Federation for American Immigration Reform, said his group thinks that more and higher conventional fences and old-fashioned border agent surveillance are more reliable than the technology.

“Instead of spending a lot of time reassessing,” Mehlman said, “they should get out there and do the sorts of things we know work effectively to get control of the border, such as double fencing and more manpower.”

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