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Denogean: Virtual fence debacle demands investigation

Boeing profits despite the failure of its border work

Tower (right) with sensors, cameras (above) and other sensitive equipment are part of the "virtual fence'' outside Sasabe near Arivaca Road.

Tower (right) with sensors, cameras (above) and other sensitive equipment are part of the "virtual fence'' outside Sasabe near Arivaca Road.

The high-tech virtual fence meant to secure 28 miles of U.S. border near Sasabe officially is known as Project 28.

But after revelations that the $20.6 million fence built by Boeing Corp. doesn’t work right, elected officials from Arizona are calling it “a disgrace,” “a boondoggle” and “a fiasco.”

The virtual fence was part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Border Initiative, a multibillion dollar program launched in 2005 to protect the U.S-Mexico border with physical barriers (including 370 miles of pedestrian fence and 300 miles of vehicle fence) and enhanced surveillance and communication technologies.

DHS accepted the project from Boeing on Feb. 22. Days later, a representative of the Government Accountability Office testified before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee that Project 28 “is not an optimal system” and would soon have to be replaced with newer technologies.

Boeing developed and designed the system with only minimal input from the Border Patrol, the agency using it, according to the testimony.

Technical issues delayed delivery of the system. The software Boeing selected was intended for law enforcement dispatch and was not designed to handle the type of information being collected by the cameras, radar and sensors, according to GAO testimony. It was taking too long for radar information to display in command centers. And the radar systems “were being activated by rain or other environmental factors, making the system unusable.”

As Boeing worked to correct the problems, others arose. As of February, the resolution of camera images was limited to five kilometers (3.1 miles), when the cameras were expected to work at twice that distance.

Project 28 was a pilot program. Instead of deeming it a failure and moving on, DHS has thrown two more contracts at Boeing. One is $64.5 million to, among other things, upgrade the software used in Project 28. The other is $69 million to begin planning for virtual fence systems in other areas of the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector and the Yuma and El Paso sectors.

The debacle has left questions about where we go from here with border security.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the most disturbing thing about this whole episode is that it was predictable.

“There was a rush on the part of administration and Homeland Security to do something on the border,” he said.

“And I think every time you make a political response in haste in order to satisfy a political agenda and not really look at what the ramifications and the consequences are going to be, you end up with these boondoggles.”

He said Project 28 shows that a fence is not the silver bullet of border security. Solutions to securing the border must be as multifaceted and complex as the border itself, he said.

“I hope this causes people to stop and say, ‘We can’t continue to keep throwing money at this issue. We have to do it in a way that is effective and this is not effective.’ ”

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who supports the use of technology and other innovative techniques to secure the border, blames the shortcomings of the fence on the failure of DHS and Boeing to consult with the Border Patrol.

“These are the men and women who are on the ground, in the field, securing our borders and they weren’t consulted at all,” Giffords said.

She filed a bill, the Border Security Accountability Act, on Thursday to demand more accountability from DHS.

For fiscal 2008, which started Oct. 1, DHS received $32 billion in regular appropriations and $1.8 billion in emergency supplemental funds, yet the department has no regular reporting requirements, Giffords said. Her bill would require reports every 90 days.

“With my legislation in place I think that we would have been able to prevent the Project 28 fiasco,” she said.

Randy Graf, a former state representative who was the Republican candidate for the seat held by Republican Jim Kolbe and won by Giffords in 2006, said the best assessment of the virtual fence came from U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California.

“He said, ‘The virtual fence is virtually useless.’ And I would agree with that.”

Graf said virtual fences and unmanned aerial drones, even when they work, only detect activity and do not actually stop people from crossing the border.

He said the solution to stopping illegal immigration is real fences, augmented by an increase in Border Patrol and military manpower at the border.

He calls for tripling the Border Patrol force, increasing the National Guard presence at the border and bringing in military forces if needed.

“It’s just the physical presence as a deterrence, saying ‘This isn’t where you cross. We’ve got ports of entry where you can cross legally, just going through the process.’ And I think we could bring order to the border in very short order.”

State Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, a hard-liner on illegal immigration, said border security can be achieved by a combination of regular fences, double-layer fences enhanced by technology and virtual fences.

Despite the failure of Project 28, the technology exists or can be developed for a working virtual fence, Pearce said.

The real problem, he said, is the “scoundrels” in Washington, D.C., who continue to ignore the will of the American people, who want the laws enforced and the border secured. It’s up to Americans to vote politicians who won’t protect them out of office, he said.

A total of 168 miles of pedestrian fence and 135 of vehicle fence have been built, but delays in finishing a promised 670 miles total are anticipated.

“We have the ability, the technology and the resources to secure that border. The only thing preventing us is the (lack of) political will to protect Americans as they have a right to be protected,” he said.

Kolbe, the former Republican congressman whose district included 100 miles of the U.S. border with Mexico, believes this debacle should lead back to where the discussion started – comprehensive immigration, reform.

“I think the lesson that ought to be learned is that attempts to build a physical barrier, whether you do it as a virtual fence or whether you do it with wire or steel, are bound to fail in terms of keeping out people. They’ll always find ways to get into the United States,” Kolbe said.

“You can’t solve the problem if you don’t deal with all the pieces of the puzzle. And that means to provide for work permits for people to come in and work temporarily in the United States, for ways for employers make sure they know who they are hiring and to deal with the people who are here in the United States on an illegal basis.”

Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and adenogean@tucsoncitizen.com. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.

Two men stand on the Sonora, Mexico, side of the border fence near Sasabe.

Two men stand on the Sonora, Mexico, side of the border fence near Sasabe.

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Online Poll: Should the U.S. continue to pursue putting in a virtual border fence?
No. Spend the money on a real fence.: 51%
No. We don't need a fence.: 21%
Yes. We need all possible weapons in our arsenal to combat illegal immigration.: 25%
I don't know.: 1%
287 users voted

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