Firms Vie to Provide the Future of Border Security

The U.S. Border Patrol uses a portable surveillance tower, known as a remote video surveillance site, along the border with Mexico. The tower can be raised and lowered and can transported to other locations along the border.
The U.S. Border Patrol uses a portable surveillance tower, known as a remote video surveillance site, along the border with Mexico. The tower can be raised and lowered and can transported to other locations along the border. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2006

If Northrop Grumman Corp. gets the multibillion-dollar contract to secure America's borders, the sky above the Rio Grande would be thick with drones.

Cellphone maker Ericsson Inc. thinks drones are largely a waste and would focus instead on giving Border Patrol agents wireless devices capable of receiving live video.

Boeing Co. would build high-tech towers, lining the borders with 1,800 of them.

For Lockheed Martin Corp., blimps are a big part of the solution. And for Raytheon Co., the key is letting agents watch incidents unfold on Google Earth.

Those are the plans, anyway. The questions now are which company will win the rights to put its technology into play, and how well any of it will actually work in helping the United States gain control of its notoriously porous borders.

The Department of Homeland Security is expected within days to name a winner in a competition that could permanently change the way the United States conducts surveillance, apprehension and detention operations along its northern and southern boundaries. The choice promises to lend significant insight into how the government sees the future of border security, with firms offering rival visions of how that future looks.

All year, the nation's largest military contractors have been locked in intense competition to team with the government on a program that gives the private sector unusually wide sway over a critical national security issue. Michael P. Jackson, the deputy director of the Homeland Security Department, told the competing firms earlier this year he wanted them "to come back and tell us how to do our business."

The resulting proposals are the latest incarnation of decades' worth of attempts to use technology to create a virtual fence along the border. So far, none have been successful. Recent initiatives have ended with cameras that failed to work in extreme temperatures and millions of dollars wasted.

But with immigration legislation stalled in Congress, Homeland Security officials are gambling that this new effort -- known as the Secure Border Initiative -- will be their best hope of cutting the flow of illegal immigrants into the country.

Officials say they expect the solution to be in place within four years, but companies say they can get it done sooner. The cost has been pegged at $2 billion but is likely to be higher. No one is downplaying the stakes.

"I don't think the Department of Homeland Security can afford to fail here," said Wayne Esser, who has led Boeing's efforts to capture the contract, which is called SBInet. "This thing is so politically charged. It's very visible."

The program has already garnered heavy criticism from detractors who worry that the government does not know enough about what it is buying and that the program could amount to a costly give-away to the private sector. "It's a little bit scary when the government throws up its hands and says, 'We have no idea how to do this. Please tell us,' " said Deborah W. Meyers, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. "It just seems like the government is putting policy in the hands of the contractors."


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