In 'Virtual Fence,' Continuity With Border Effort by Bush

This 98-foot mobile sensor tower south of Tucson was erected two years ago as part of a Bush administration surveillance technology pilot project.
This 98-foot mobile sensor tower south of Tucson was erected two years ago as part of a Bush administration surveillance technology pilot project. (The Washington Post)
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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 9, 2009

In announcing the resumption of a "virtual fence" on the U.S.-Mexican border yesterday, the Obama administration sent a powerful message of continuity with President George W. Bush, who included a pledge to secure the border as part of a 2006 effort to persuade Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.

Much as Bush aides did three years ago, administration officials in the Department of Homeland Security described a five-year, multibillion-dollar plan yesterday to link a chain of tower-mounted sensors and other surveillance equipment over most of the 2,000-mile southern frontier. As before, the network of cameras, radar and communications gear is intended to speed deployment of U.S. Border Patrol officers to intercept illegal immigrants, drug smugglers and other violators, yielding greater "operational control" over the vast and rugged area.

What is different, DHS officials said, is that they have learned lessons from the technical problems that dogged the Bush administration's first, 28-mile pilot project south of Tucson. What remains unclear is whether the ambitious technology will encounter fresh setbacks that would embarrass President Obama, who has urged Congress to streamline the immigration system and work out a way to deal fairly with the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, analysts said.

James Jay Carafano, a homeland security analyst at the Heritage Foundation, praised efforts to move beyond Congress's $2 billion drive to build 670 miles of fencing and vehicle barriers on the border, saying the country is better served with technology that fits the needs of the Border Patrol than with a hard-to-maintain "bumper-sticker" fence that the agency doesn't want.

"What the Obama administration is trying to do is sending this political message, 'We're doing enforcement,' " Carafano said. However, he said, betting on unproven technology raises the risk that it will end up "overpromising and under-delivering."

Between 1998 and 2005, the government spent $429 million on two border surveillance efforts that were so unreliable that only 1 percent of alarms led to arrests.

Susan Ginsburg, director of the mobility and security program at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, agreed that "the jury is out" on whether the virtual fence design makes the most sense. But she said the undertaking is necessary as much to thwart terrorism and organized crime at the border as to foil illegal immigrants looking for work, if not more so.

"There are a lot of questions about the technology, but there is still a strategic interest in the project," Ginsburg said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say they are ready to try again.

On Monday, U.S. officials began erecting 17 camera and radio towers on a 23-mile stretch near Tucson, and they expect this summer to add 36 others over 30 miles near Ajo, Ariz. If testing goes well and DHS approves, plans call for covering the 320-mile Arizona border by 2012 and the full border with Mexico -- except for a 200-mile stretch in southwestern Texas where it is difficult to cross and expensive to monitor -- by 2014.

Bush's five-year, $7.6 billion cost projection has been trimmed to $6.7 billion because the Texas segment was deferred, said Mark Borkowski, executive director of DHS's Secure Border Initiative and its technology component, SBInet.

"This is the initiation of the no-kidding, real, SBInet system," Borkowski said. "We understand this a lot better. We're a lot more sophisticated."

The government has made many changes since a $20 million pilot rushed off-the-shelf equipment into operation without testing, relied on inadequate police dispatching software and ignored the input of Border Patrol officers, who found that radar systems were triggered by rain, satellite communications were too slow to permit camera operators to track targets by remote control, and cameras had poor visibility.

Borkowski said DHS has paid $600 million to its prime contractor, Boeing. It is using new software, radar, cameras and sturdier towers, and has simplified camera operation and added more thorough testing by Border Patrol officers.

Boeing's three-year contract expires in September, but DHS is likely to seek at least a one-year extension while it reviews whether to change contracting strategies, Borkowski said.

The goal of SBInet is to enable the Border Patrol to detect 70 to 85 percent of incursions. Technology may help the Border Patrol to control the border with 22,000 to 25,000 officers, fewer than the 27,000 once estimated, he said.

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