DHS Plan for 'Virtual' Border Fence Still Has Gaps

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

A Bush administration plan to build a "virtual" fence along the Mexico border will cost $7.6 billion and be completed by 2011, but the government lacks clear benchmarks for success, according to a report to Congress by the Department of Homeland Security.

Confirming well-known problems along the Mexican border, DHS also reported that the United States had "effective control" over only 284 miles of its 1,993-mile southern frontier as of March, up from 241 miles in October 2005. The department set a goal of controlling 345 miles next year and the full border in five years. But it acknowledged not having "a wholly satisfactory methodology" of defining "control."

Lawmakers ordered DHS to submit a multi-year strategic plan for the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) and its virtual-fence system (SBInet), citing two failed border technology programs that have cost taxpayers $429 million since 1998. The department's inspector general warned last month that SBInet could cost as much as $30 billion, far more than the $2 billion initially projected by industry analysts, and suffers from vague objectives.

Despite a law authorizing a 700-mile physical fence on the Mexican border, the Congress and White House are pushing forward with SBInet, which would deploy a mix of fencing, vehicle barriers, sensors, cameras and other surveillance technology to create a virtual barrier along 6,000 miles of U.S. northern and southern borders.

SBInet will cost $1.2 billion this year and $7.6 billion through 2011 on the southern border alone, DHS reported. By comparison, DHS agencies expect to spend $40.7 billion for border security between 2008 and 2011.

The five-year target for operational control of the border is the latest offered by U.S. officials. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has predicted two years, three to five years, and most recently he has said control could be contingent on enactment of a guest-worker program, which could take up to six years to implement.

DHS also issued a new mission statement for SBI that emphasizes counterterrorism over immigration control. The program will promote strategies "that protect against and prevent terrorist attacks and other transnational crimes," DHS reported, while coordinating efforts to enforce immigration laws.

Staff writer Griff Witte contributed to this report.

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