Border securityOur primary border security system cannot distinguish between a cow and a terrorist

By Lee Maril

Published 25 February 2013

One of the main security components along the U.S.-Mexico border is a system of 12,000 aging ground sensors. These sensors, however, cannot distinguish between human beings trying to cross the border, a grazing cow, or a pack of javelin – the wild boar that roams this area along the Rio Grande. DHS has so far spent billions on trying to find a technology which would better secure the border. The question that should be asked is why DHS has not adopted a proven system of sophisticated ground sensors, like the one which the U.S. Army has successfully deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even as both Democrats and Republicans rush to roll out immigration bills to replace the Immigration and Control Act of 1986, a mammoth bungling by Customs and Border Protection under the Department of Homeland Security undermines our national security along the Mexican border.  At the center of this on-going boondoggle is the lowly ground sensor, a device placed to send a signal to the CBP when a drug smuggler, undocumented worker, or possible terrorist illegally crosses the border.

My first contact with the vital importance of border ground sensors was when I was riding along one night with a Border Patrol agent near the Rio Grande, ten miles south of McAllen, Texas.  The CBP dispatcher announced five “hits” on a sensor just one-half mile from our location.  The agent pounded the accelerator of his truck as we sped along a narrow two-lane road towards the sensor.  Pulling off the road a few hundred yards from the banks of the Rio Grande, we met up with another CBP unit.  Three agents charged down a trail leading to the river, a path known to be frequented by drug smugglers. 

What we found at the end of the trail, however, was neither men laboring under the weight of 80 pound packs of marijuana, nor a band of undocumented workers hiding underneath the brush, nor professional terrorists headed towards Dallas.  Instead, there was a cow. 

The ground sensors upon which the Border Patrol depended as their first line of defense were composed of thousands of low-tech, Vietnam-era devices that could not distinguish between a cow and a terrorist — or packs of javelina, wild boar that roamed this area along the Rio Grande.

Back at the station at the end of the shift, a manager told me that these old sensors would soon be replaced by a new era of technologically sophisticated devices.  This run-in with a cow, the first of many meetings with both domesticated and wild animals setting off border sensors, occurred in June, 1999.

New border sensors were not forthcoming in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004.  In 2005 a GAO report documented that the current system of 12,000 aging border sensors was only correct in identifying human offenders in 4 percent of all cases; 34 percent of the time the sensors reported false alarms, while it was not determined what the origins were of 62 percent of sensor alarms (“Statement of Richard L. Skinner, Inspector General,