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White House to use webcams to create live feed of border wall construction

Border Patrol Agent Anthony Garcia stands in August along the U.S. border with Mexico in Calexico, Calif., where new border barrier is replacing old fencing. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Jared Kushner and other senior Trump administration officials are planning to set up web cameras to live-stream construction of President Trump’s border wall, going against objections from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, according to four people familiar with the White House proposal.

“There will be a wall cam, and it’ll launch early next year,” said a senior White House official involved in the initiative, which aims to rally public support for hundreds of miles of new border barrier Trump wants in place by next year’s election.

Smugglers are sawing through new sections of Trump’s border wall

The project, which already has cost $10 billion in taxpayer funds, is behind schedule and faces major hurdles, including the need to acquire miles of privately held land in Texas where barriers are slated to be built.

Kushner floated the idea during meetings in July, part of a messaging effort to push back against criticism that Trump has failed to deliver on the signature proposal of his 2016 campaign. The Army Corps and CBP have told Kushner that construction contractors do not want their proprietary techniques visible to competitors, according to four people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal discussions.

Officials at the Army Corps and CBP also were concerned the cameras would show U.S. work crews violating Mexican sovereignty because they sometimes must stray south of the border to maneuver their vehicles and heavy equipment in the desert. Because some of the remote border areas lack network access, the cameras will require their own web connectivity and attendants who could frequently reposition them to keep the lens pointed at the action.

Kushner has continued to press forward with the 24-hour-wall-cam idea anyway, viewing the feeds as a crucial part of the administration’s effort to demonstrate irrefutable evidence of progress. Trump asked Kushner to take over the management and messaging of the border barrier project after the government shutdown last winter because the president was so frustrated that work hasn’t been going faster.

Trump and other White House officials also have been eager for photos and videos of new barriers, including aerial footage, that the president can share on his Twitter account.

“It’s understood that Kushner is so aggressive because the president has been asking him about it all the time,” a senior White House official said.

The July meeting that Kushner led included White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney; Trump’s senior immigration adviser, Stephen Miller; acting Homeland Security secretary Kevin McAleenan; and acting CBP commissioner Mark Morgan.

Kushner has convened border barrier meetings every two weeks or so since then to press for a faster pace of construction, telling others the president has told him to get the job done and to dispense with excuse-making by aides, a White House official said.

‘Take the land’: President Trump wants a border wall. He wants it black. And he wants it by Election Day.

It is unclear how much the webcam initiative will cost, nor how the technology will be used. CBP has funds available for planning and mapping of the structure that could pay for the video feeds, according to one person involved in the discussions.

The hunger for a real-time stream of wall construction underscores the Trump administration’s eagerness to show the president’s supporters and critics that the structure is being built, even as crews appear to be lagging behind the president’s construction timeline and smugglers already have been finding ways to get over and through the new barriers.

After a recent Washington Post report described smugglers’ successful efforts to saw through brand-new sections of the barrier with ordinary power tools, CBP officials acknowledged that breaches have occurred, and Trump has backed off his claims about the “impenetrability” of his wall.

His administration has finished 81 miles so far, according to the latest updates, but nearly all of that is “replacement” barrier that swaps out smaller, older fencing for a taller, more formidable barrier made of steel bollards that are 18 feet to 30 feet in height.

Another 155 miles of fencing are under construction, according to the latest CBP figures, and 273 miles are considered to be in a “preconstruction” phase.

Kushner has insisted the 400-to-500 mile goal is achievable, believing that the pace of construction will increase from the current rate of two to three miles per week to as much as six miles per week later next year, the senior White House official said.

As part of Kushner’s communication plan, the White House also plans to work on more aggressively promoting the project with a dedicated border wall website that will feature live feeds from the border and real-time construction data, the official said.

Trump administration has acquired little of the private land in Texas it needs for border barrier

With Trump, Kushner and other senior White House officials asking for progress updates and images of construction crews in action, CBP officials hired a private contractor earlier this year to build a website that would allow users to track the project’s advance.

The White House officials were unimpressed with the CBP version of the site, and they are planning something more dynamic that will include the camera feeds. In general, Kushner believes the project has suffered from lackluster effort and a lack of urgency, the White House official said, and he does not believe contractors’ claims that their construction methods are proprietary.

Ory Rinat, the Trump administration’s chief digital officer, is working on Kushner’s border wall site, according to two people familiar with the initiative.

While CBP officials continue to insist they remain on track to meet the president’s 400-to-500 mile target, in private others believe that goal is not realistic, especially because the administration has acquired so little of the private land it needs in Texas.

Of the 166 miles of new barriers the administration intends to build in Texas, all but four miles will be built on private land. The rest will have to be purchased or seized by the government. But the government has yet to contact dozens of landowners to begin the preliminary work of seeking access to their property to start surveying.

CBP officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The Army Corps referred inquiries to CBP.

David Lapan, who was a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security in 2017 when the agency was developing a series of prototype designs for the barrier, said the administration also has struggled to claim it is building “new” barriers in areas where it is upgrading existing fencing.

“The challenge the administration has had is terming everything ‘new construction,’ when in most cases it’s replacement,” said Lapan, who is now with the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center. “A camera showing you building something doesn’t differentiate between replacement fencing and new fencing in terms of something that didn’t exist before.”

While CBP and the Army Corps continue to describe the barrier in more sober, technical terms as a federal infrastructure project, it remains a political symbol for the president, Lapan noted.

“It’s become a pet project for the president, and CBP and the Army Corps wouldn’t be facing such a communication challenge if they could focus on the operational elements,” he said.

CBP initiated construction work on an eight-mile span of new fencing last week in the lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, the first place the Trump administration is building where no barrier previously existed.