Costly Virtual Border Fence in Tatters

Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times, October 22, 2010

The Department of Homeland Security, positioning itself to cut its losses on a so-called invisible fence along the U.S.- Mexico border, has decided not to exercise a one-year option for Boeing to continue work on the troubled multibillion-dollar project involving high-tech cameras, radar and vibration sensors.

The result, after an investment of more than $1 billion, may be a system with only 53 miles of unreliable coverage along the nearly 2,000-mile border.

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The government has not released an independent assessment of the program completed in July, but with the two-month Boeing extension about to run out, several members of Congress expect the Homeland Security Department to rule soon on the fate of the invisible fence, the high-tech portion of the $4.4-billion Secure Border Initiative.

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But given that the virtual fence has yet to pass muster even in the 53-mile test area–two sections in Arizona that officials acknowledge won’t be fully operational until 2013–and the government’s lack of interest in extending Boeing’s contract, most do not expect the department to invest billions more in a project that has continually disappointed.

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Some of the technology, such as remote cameras, night-vision video and mobile surveillance, is being used by agents in the Arizona test areas, which see a high level of cross-border traffic. But the effectiveness is far from what was requested by Homeland Security officials and promised by Boeing when the project began.

Daytime cameras are able to monitor only half of the distance expected. Ground sensors can identify off-road vehicles, but not humans, as initially envisioned by the government.

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Congress was sold on the initiative as a way to combine newfangled gadgetry with old-fashioned fences to secure the entire expanse of the U.S. border with Mexico. Physical fencing has been installed over 600 miles of terrain under the program. But the technological portion, called SBInet, has languished.

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Trouble with the invisible fence began in the design phase, when the Homeland Security Department set demands for the technology that surpassed what was available at the time. The department required, for example, that the system help Border Patrol agents be in position to apprehend 90% of the incursions over the border, but the technology has achieved only a fraction of that goal. Citing problems with the program, Napolitano announced in March that she was freezing funding to the initiative outside of Arizona.

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