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Costly virtual border fence in tatters

The U.S. is set to defund the troubled project. It was intended to keep a high-tech eye on the Mexican border.

October 22, 2010|By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — 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.

The virtual fence was intended to link advanced monitoring technologies to command centers for Border Patrol to identify and thwart human trafficking and drug smuggling. But from the beginning, the program has been plagued by missed deadlines and the limitations of existing electronics in rugged, unpredictable wilderness where high winds and a tumbleweed can be enough to trigger an alarm.

Homeland Security officials decided on Sept. 21 not to invoke the department's option with Boeing, the principle contractor on the project, and instead extended the deal only to mid-November, Boeing officials confirmed this week. Boeing has charged the department more than $850 million since the project began in 2006.

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.

Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler would only say that a new way forward for the program "is expected shortly."

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.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he hoped Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano would act soon. "The program is headed in the wrong direction," Thompson said.

"It would be a great shame to scrap SBInet," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R- Texas), who has encouraged the department to bring to the Southwest the technology the U.S. military is using on the Afghanistan- Pakistan border. "Technology is key to solving these border issues."

Even as scrutiny of the program has increased in the last year, Boeing has not provided accurate information on the progress of the program, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released Oct. 18. The study found an unusually high number of errors in the data Boeing gave to the Homeland Security Department.

A spokeswoman for Boeing said the company had "worked closely with Customs and Border Protection to overcome past performance and management challenges." She added that Boeing was committed to completing the testing and delivery of the system at the Tucson and Ajo, Ariz., stations, which comprise the 53-mile test zones.

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.

"It turned out to be a harder technological problem than we ever anticipated," said Mark Borkowski, executive director of the electronic fence program at the Homeland Security Department, earlier this year. "We thought it would be very easy, and it wasn't."

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.

Randolph C. Hite, who monitors the program as GAO director for information technology architecture systems, praised Homeland Security officials' decision to extend Boeing's contract on a short-term basis while it takes a close look at the program's worthiness.

"I think it is a prudent step," Hite said.

In the meantime, Homeland Security spokesman Chandler said Customs and Border Protection would determine "if there are alternatives that may more efficiently, effectively and economically meet our nation's border security needs."

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.

bbennett@tribune.com

Richard A. Serrano in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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