Technology Has Uneven Record on Securing Border

By Spencer S. Hsu and John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 21, 2006

Applying lessons the U.S. military has learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration is embarking on a multibillion-dollar bid to help secure the U.S.-Mexican border with surveillance technology -- a strategy that veterans of conflicts abroad say will be more difficult than it appears.

One component of the Strategic Border Initiative provides the technological underpinning for the bold prediction by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that the United States will gain control of the Mexican border and the Canadian border in as little as three years.

The plan envisions satellites, manned and unmanned aircraft, ground sensors and cameras tied to a computerized dispatch system that would alert Border Patrol units. "We are launching the most technologically advanced border security initiative in American history," President Bush said in his address to the nation Monday.

Skeptics contend that the Department of Homeland Security's record of applying technology is abysmal. Industry analysts say that an initial $2 billion private-sector estimate is low. And by allowing the winning bidder to determine the technology and personnel needed to detect, catch, process and remove illegal immigrants, experts say, the plan ensures a big payday for contractors, whatever the outcome.

"If the military could seal a 6,000-mile border for $2 billion, Iraq's borders would have been sealed two years ago," said Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank.

SBInet, part of the border initiative, will dictate the government's long-term presence. Bush's push for a guest-worker program is grounded in the premise that conventional "enforcement alone will not do the job."

By reducing demand for immigrant labor, beefing up the Border Patrol and deploying next-generation technology to catch illegal border crossers, the administration plan "assumes operational control within . . . three to five years," Chertoff told Congress last month.

To supporters such as Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee that funds homeland security, the Pentagon already possesses the necessary technology.

"It's complex, but it doesn't have to be invented. It hardly even has to be modified," Gregg said. "It's really just a question of will -- and dollars."

On the ground, early results of the government's multibillion-dollar wager to plug the porous border already are on display.

In far southwestern Arizona, U.S. Customs agents, the Border Patrol and the National Guard patrol 120 miles of forbidding desert from a communications room filled with computer workstations and lined with 25 flat-screen televisions on the wall.

The Border Patrol installed 25 fixed cameras over favored smuggling routes in the sector in recent years. More than 100 sensors lie buried in the ground. Seismic sensors alert at the movement of large numbers of people. Infrared sensors pick up heat signatures of people and objects, and magnetic sensors detect vehicles.

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