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Chertoff: Virtual border fence will get gov’t stamp of approval

WASHINGTON – The government plans to approve a 28-mile virtual fence along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday.

Last year the government withheld partial payment to contractor Boeing Co. because the technology the company used in the test project near Tucson, Ariz., did not work properly. The department gave a conditional acceptance in December.

Chertoff saw the fence during a trip to Arizona last week.

“I think it looks good,” he told lawmakers. The department has not yet made the official acceptance.

The virtual fence is part of a national plan to secure the southwest border with physical barriers and technological detection capabilities intended to stop illegal immigrants on foot and drug smugglers in vehicles. At the beginning of the month, 294 miles of fencing had been constructed, Chertoff said. Some of the technology used in the 28-mile stretch could be replicated along other parts of the border, he said.

The virtual fence includes 98-foot unmanned towers that are equipped with an array of sophisticated technology including radar, sensor devices and cameras capable of distinguishing people from cattle at a distance of about 10 miles.

The cameras are powerful enough to tell group sizes and whether people are carrying weapons and backpacks full of drugs.

But software glitches have kept the array from providing a common operating picture with global positioning information to Border Patrol command centers as well as to agents with laptops in their vehicles stationed in the area to intercept intruders.

The government paid Boeing $15 million of its initial $20 million contract before determining during the summer that there were glitches.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said he is skeptical that the virtual fence actually works the way it is supposed to.

Thompson, who chairs the House committee that oversees the department, said in a statement, “A poorly structured contract that prevented the line Border Patrol agents from pointing out obvious flaws, combined with over-reliance on contractors, has resulted in a system that has been described as providing at best ‘marginal’ functionality.”

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