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Bush's 'Virtual Fence' Faces Trouble, Delays

By Spencer S. Hsu and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Technical and management troubles have caused the government's effort to secure a portion of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border with a chain of surveillance towers to fall behind schedule, jeopardizing the success of a costly project meant to showcase the Bush administration's tougher stance on immigration enforcement.

A $20 million pilot program to safeguard a 28-mile stretch of rough, mesquite-dotted terrain that straddles a smuggling corridor south of Tucson was supposed to be operational in June but now is expected to be delayed until the end of the year, according to the officials at the Department of Homeland Security who are overseeing it.

Ground radar and cameras that were to identify illegal border crossers so that armed patrols could be dispatched to capture them have had trouble distinguishing people and vehicles from cows and bushes. The sensors are also confused by moisture, the officials said.

The government has grown so worried that it is withholding nearly $5 million in payments to Boeing Co., which was selected as the main contractor a year ago. The House Appropriations Committee has voted to withhold $700 million of the $1 billion that President Bush requested for the program for next year, pending further details and progress reports.

In May 2006, Bush heralded the "virtual fence" as "the most technologically advanced border security initiative in American history" and as a linchpin for his immigration overhaul, which later collapsed in the Senate. DHS has proposed spending $2.5 billion to secure 370 miles of the border with fences, at least 200 miles of vehicle barriers and about 130 miles with technology by the end of the next year.

But the fencing program, known as the Secure Border Initiative Network, or SBInet, is having trouble delivering on its promise -- as are some other new defense technology initiatives, such as the Defense Department's effort to create a shield against ballistic missile attack.

A year ago last Friday, DHS awarded the first $65 million in contracts to Boeing, which proposed to build, test and turn on by June 13 the first nine of an estimated 1,800 mobile towers. Using technology Boeing said has been refined in Iraq and Afghanistan, authorities envisioned a chain of 98-foot towers on the border that would combine cameras, radar, computer and communications gear, and security features to beam data to faraway command centers.

Controllers would respond to suspicious radar hits picked up over land or water by zooming optical cameras by day and thermal-imaging sensors by night to locate border crossers and determine any threat posed.

The system, which is expected to cost more than $8 billion through 2011 alone, was designed to relieve the federal government of the technically dubious and far costlier prospect of fencing the entire 6,000 miles of borders with Mexico and Canada and further expanding the U.S. Border Patrol. The patrol is set to grow to 18,000 agents next year, more than double its 2001 level.

Even on a relatively thin 28-mile slice of the border, cameras are having difficulty with automatic-focus software. Radars needed continual fine-tuning to "de-clutter" their returns. Moisture from this year's heavy rain unexpectedly blurred sensor images like water on a windshield, officials said. The wild region's deep canyons and thick vegetation have further complicated the cameras' performance as well as the tower's power supply and communications.

"What they always find is the real world is harder than the laboratory. You get out there, it's hot, there's sand -- it just takes a while to work through," said James A. Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He urged patience, noting that it took 13 launches for the United States to successfully deploy its first-generation Corona spy satellite in August 1960. A key department objective is completing a near real-time maplike projection of the border frontier that can display potential targets as well as the location of law enforcement resources. It is meant to be used by controllers at headquarters and agents in the field to help them intercept their quarry, using vehicles retrofitted with laptops and satellite phones or handheld devices.

But doing everything by remote control is difficult. With so many technologies and systems to be integrated, it takes 30 to 40 seconds for imagery to reach a command center in Tucson, 65 miles to the north, making it hard for operators to lock cameras on potential targets, officials said.

"Although the individual components of the system worked well, the system integration was not satisfactory," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told members of the House Homeland Security Committee earlier this month, noting that the Boeing system had failed a test drive. "We didn't want to get stuck with a lemon," he said. "I am not going to buy something . . . unless I'm satisfied it works in the real world."

Chertoff said he spoke with James F. Albaugh, chief executive of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, on Sept. 4 about potential consequences, telling lawmakers: "If this is not going to work, if it's too complicated, we're prepared to go back to the drawing board and do something simpler. . . . I believe the contractor understands what's at stake."

Boeing reshuffled its management team in August, shifting responsibility to IDS's network and space systems unit and replacing its project director. A Boeing spokesman referred questions to DHS but said the new director had "invaluable" experience.

James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the program's troubles show the danger of premising immigration law changes such as a new guest-worker program on untested, long-term enforcement strategies. Bush officials' rhetoric last year about the virtual fence raised "kind of unrealistic expectations about what you're going to get at the front end," he said.

If the program falters, he added, "it's embarrassing for everyone" who pressed for comprehensive legislation in Congress this year.

Gregory L. Giddens, the program's executive director, was in Tucson last week to plan a new round of key tests for mid-October, his spokesman said. U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesmen declined to say how much Boeing has been paid so far and what other contracts have been awarded.

Two U.S. border surveillance programs cost taxpayers $429 million between 1998 and 2005, DHS's inspector general reported in December 2005. They yielded a system that could be triggered by insects, horses and weather, and so Border Patrol agents never investigated 60 percent of sensor alerts. Ninety percent of the rest were false alarms and only 1 percent led to arrests.

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