Government scrapping virtual fence on Arizona-Mexico border

Published 25 April 2008

Boeing’s Project 28 — showcasing advanced technologies to be used in making U.S. borders more secure — was hobbled from the start by technological glitches and delays; it delivered much less than what was promised, and DHS decides to scrap it

You had a sense ot would come to that: The U.S. government will replace its highly touted virtual fence on the Arizona-Mexico border with new towers, radars, cameras, and computer software, scrapping the new $20 million system because it does not work sufficiently, officials said. The move comes just two months after Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff officially accepted the completed fence from Boeing. With the decision, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials are acknowledging that the Project 28 pilot program to detect illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border does not work well enough to keep or to continue tweaking. The project consists of nine towers along a 28-mile section straddling the border crossing at Sasabe, southwest of Tucson. DHS will put in about seventeen new towers, some holding communications gear, others with new cameras or new radars, at an undetermined cost.

Although the system is operating today, it has not come close to meeting the Border Patrol’s goals, said Kelly Good, deputy director of the Secure Border Initiative program. The Border Patrol had little input in designing the prototype but will have more say in the final version, officials said. The towers, equipped with radars, optical and thermal imaging cameras, and other sensors, are supposed to show nearby Border Patrol agents a complete picture of the border on the laptop computers in their patrol trucks. The system’s less-than-optimal results have been heavily criticized by politicians and others. The new software Boeing is creating to provide agents a complete and rapid picture is considered the core of any new operating system. The problems with the system involved not just the computer software but the radar and satellite links used to send the information. All will be replaced with different types. Groundbreaking for the permanent towers is expected in July, and at least five of the current tower sites will be moved, officials said.

In another development, the governors of Arizona, New Mexico, and California have written congressional leaders urging that Congress extend and fully fund the National Guard’s stay along their borders with Mexico. They said the Guard’s presence has helped reduce the number of illegal crossings and increased arrests for illegal activity, including drug smuggling. National Guard soldiers began supplementing the Border Patrol in nonenforcement activities along the southwestern border in the summer of 2006. Their involvement is scheduled to end by mid-July.