U.S. to Closely Watch Boeing's Border Plan

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, at rostrum, announces that Boeing Co. won a contract to build security systems along the Mexican and Canadian borders. Boeing executive James Albaugh appeared with Chertoff.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, at rostrum, announces that Boeing Co. won a contract to build security systems along the Mexican and Canadian borders. Boeing executive James Albaugh appeared with Chertoff. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)
By Griff Witte and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 22, 2006

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday that the government learned its lessons from failed border-security initiatives and will move cautiously with its private-sector partner, Boeing Co., in the latest effort to use technology to curb illegal immigration.

In announcing that Boeing had won the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet) contract, Chertoff emphasized that his department would call the shots and keep close watch on the company's progress.

Homeland Security officials had been criticized by some immigration experts and lawmakers for indicating that the private sector would be given wide discretion in shaping a new system to secure 6,000 miles of land border. Previous attempts to do that have cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars but left little to show for it as equipment malfunctioned, agents were overwhelmed with false alarms and illegal immigration continued to climb.

"Prior efforts to put technology on the border have been focused on individual tools but have not been focused on integrating all the tools together as part of a comprehensive program," Chertoff said. SBInet, he said, will allow border patrol agents "to know when anybody or anything is crossing that border."

That will not happen for several years, at least. The SBInet program is estimated to be worth as much as $2.5 billion, but initially Boeing will be given just under $70 million to work on a high-traffic, 28-mile stretch of the border south of Tucson. Government officials want the company to fully deploy its technology there within the next eight months. Assuming the program receives funding from Congress, the company would expand its operations from there, working on other areas of the Mexican border first and then moving to the Canadian border. The contract runs for three years, with three option years.

Boeing beat four other competitors for the contract by proposing a network of 1,800 towers that could be used for surveillance and communications. Homeland Security officials said yesterday, however, that their choice of Boeing has not locked them into a specific number of towers or type of technology, and that the strategy will vary depending on the terrain and on what's working.

"At every step of the way as we roll out additional segments of the border under this contract, we will have the opportunity to negotiate the best price," Chertoff said. "We will have the opportunity to look for alternatives."

Chertoff's announcement was met with skepticism by T. J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents 11,000 agents. Bonner said giving agents a better sense of who is crossing the border and where wouldn't do much good on its own. "Surveillance technology can be useful if you have enough people on the ground to respond to it," he said. "But if you don't, you just have to file it away because you're too busy with the first 50 people that the cameras caught. It's not the solution to the illegal immigration problem. The solution is denying access to jobs so people don't come across in the first place."

The government's most recent attempt to use technology to enhance border security triggered too many false alarms to be effective. Boeing has said that its technology is more sophisticated and can better distinguish between genuine threats and routine movement.

Even if the technology behind SBInet works, there remains the challenge of integrating it with other border security programs. SBInet does not cover ports of entry, and it does not involve patrolling the coasts.

Boeing executive Wayne Esser said in an interview this month that he hopes more surveillance will deter some people from trying to cross borders illegally at all. But he conceded that it could merely shift the problem elsewhere. "It'll put a lot more pressure on the ports of entry, and it's going to put a lot more pressure on our coastal borders," he said.


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