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Feds OK 1st virtual fence on SW border to stop illegal crossings

WASHINGTON – The government has approved the first “virtual” fence along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, a 28-mile stretch of technology that will use radars and surveillance cameras to try to catch people entering the country illegally.

The Bush administration also plans to use some of the technology in other parts of Arizona and in Texas.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff planned to announce his approval of the virtual fence, built by the Boeing Co., on Friday.

Last year the government withheld some of the payment to Boeing because the technology the company used in the test project near Tucson, Ariz., did not work properly. Boeing also was late in delivering the final product. Because of this, the department received a $2 million credit from the company to go toward maintenance and logistical support of the system, according to Homeland Security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement was not yet public.

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. As of Feb. 8, 295 miles of fencing had been constructed.

The system is already working, the officials said.

On Feb. 13, an officer in a Tucson command center — 70 miles from the border — noticed a group of about 100 people gathered at the Mexico-Arizona border. The officer notified agents on the ground and in the air near the border. Border Patrol caught 38 of the 100 people who tried to cross illegally, and the rest of the people went back into Mexico, the official said.

The 28-mile test project — known as Project 28 — was never intended to be replicated all across the border, the officials said. The plan was to learn from the first project and apply the lessons to future virtual fencing, the officials said.

There are also plans to use the technology along portions of the Texas border and other parts of the Arizona border. These projects will get under way this summer at the earliest, the officials said.

The 28-mile virtual fence includes 98-foot unmanned surveillance 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 backpacks that may contain weapons and or drugs.

Software glitches last year kept the array from providing the same picture of the operations 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 last summer that there were glitches in the test project. The department gave a conditional acceptance in December.

Lawmakers have been skeptical of the product Boeing delivered.

“This is not the end of the Project 28 story,” Rep. Christopher Carney, D-Pa., said in a statement Thursday. “We need to understand what went wrong with Project 28 to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated and taxpayer dollars are not squandered.”

Carney chairs the House Homeland Security management subcommittee.

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