The soap boxFence to nowhere

Published 3 March 2008

DHS received the keys from Boeing — behind schedule, it should be noted — to Project 28, only to find out that it fell short of the promise the department made to Congress, and that Boeing made to the department; Boeing has now received a three-year extension; the Arizona Republic says the failure of Project 28 has deeper meaning for technology and policy

We reported last week about Project 28 — the twenty-eight miles of Arizona-Mexico border along which Boeing has installed watch towers, cameras, sensors, communication equipment, and more in order to showcase how advanced technology would make the U.S.-Mexico border more secure. The completion of the first phase of the project was delayed by a few months to allow for correction of communication problems, but now that DHS has received the keys to the equipment, it found that the technology falls far short of expectations, and has given Boeing a three-year extension. Members of Congress are fuming, and so is the influential Arizona Republic. The newspaper does not mince words: “The ‘virtual fence’ is a real boondoggle,” it writes. The sophisticated mix of radar, satellites, sensors, and computers is supposed to help the U.S. Border Patrol nab illegal immigrants and smugglers — “But it’s way over budget, way behind schedule — and doesn’t work.” The editorial should be quoted at some length:

The mess carries two important messages. High-tech government projects require greater analysis and oversight. And the single-minded focus on securing the border is distracting us from an effective answer to illegal immigration.

The first segment of the virtual fence was a 28-mile stretch along the Arizona-Mexico border near Sasabe. In tests last year, radar systems were triggered by rain, images were fuzzy and the software couldn’t process the large amounts of sensor data.

The $20 million project was such a shambles that the government gave Boeing another $65 million in December to fix the glitches.

Throwing good money after bad is rarely a stumbling block in government contracting.

Last week, Richard M. Stana of the U.S. Government Accountability Office told Congress that much of the equipment will have to be replaced at taxpayers’ additional expense. The first phase of the virtual fence, a 100-mile section ending in El Paso, was supposed to be deployed at the end of 2008 but is now expected to take another three years.

More than a year ago the GAO warned that the border-fence project was at high risk for trouble for a host of reasons, including fuzzy planning, questionable accountability and an extremely ambitious schedule that related projects occurring simultaneously.

So is Boeing in the doghouse? Hardly. In January, the company was awarded $733 million to “execute tactical infrastructure projects” related to border security, according to the GAO.

But hey, the company has learned some lessons. Roger Krone, president of the division handling the contract, told Congress that Boeing has figured out that it needs to talk to Border Patrol agents when designing the system and it should test equipment before deployment.

Quite a head-smacking revelation.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for the fencing project, seems to be operating in an alternative universe. On Feb. 22, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff declared the virtual fence a success and announced final government approval for the 28-mile Arizona section.

Reality check, please.

The virtual barrier is part of the Secure Border Initiative, designed to deliver more and better fences.

But conventional fences are also running into trouble. The GAO says fencing will likely cost more than the estimate of $4 million per mile for pedestrian barriers and $2 million per mile for vehicle barriers. Meeting the goal of 370 miles of pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle fencing by the end of this year looks unlikely. Only 168 miles of pedestrian fencing and 135 miles of vehicle fencing are complete, and nearly half of that was in place before the Secure Border Initiative was launched in November 2005.

More than half of the remaining fences must cross private land, and some property owners are so opposed that the government is taking them to court to get its way.

A Texas woman named Pamela Taylor is one of several people whose homes would end up north of the Rio Grande, but south of the fence, according to the Brownsville Herald.

Securing the border is more complicated than just building fences, virtual or steel.

What’s more, taxpayers are seeing very little return on some very big investments.

The conventional wisdom that says the enforcement must come first is wrong. It has to be part of a complete strategy.

We need a guest-worker program to channel migrants through the ports of entry. We need a program of earned legalization that recognizes the contributions of migrant workers to our economy. That’s a legitimate, not virtual, barrier.

We need real answers, not virtual ones.

Words to the wise.