Problems continue for virtual U.S.-Mexico border fence

Published 5 November 2009

With most of the 661-mile border fence complete, DHS is gearing up for testing a section of the fence near Tuscon; if the system survives this first round, it will be handed off to the Border Patrol in early 2010, who will put the technology through some real world scenarios

DHS will this month conduct a crucial test that could determine the future of the U.S.-Mexico border fence project. With most of the 661-mile border fence complete, DHS is gearing up for the next step to secure the border: it is another “fence” — a virtual fence — armed with high-tech cameras, radars and sensors. This two-fence system is called the Secure Border Initiative, or SBI.

KFOX14’s Carol Han reports that this month, a section of the virtual fence will undergo preliminary testing near Tucson. If it survives this first round, it will be handed off to the Border Patrol in early 2010, who will put the technology through some real world scenarios.

“2010 is a crucial year,” said Richard Stana of the Government Accountability Office (GAO). “I can’t understate that. If it doesn’t work in 2010, then there’s going to have to be some serious thinking about where to go, and what other options exist.”

Stana, who serves as one of Congress’s watchdogs, recently published a Secure Border Initiative (SBI) Report detailing a series of problems with the SBI program, including: issues of camera clarity in bad weather, mechanical problems with the radar, and the radar not being sensitive enough to pick things up.

Stana said that all we have to show for our approximately $620 million investment so far is a project seven years behind schedule, plagued with problems. “We just don’t know if it’s going to work,” Stana told KFOX. “If they don’t get on top of those [problems], if we find they’ve pushed the technology too far, then perhaps the Department of Homeland Security will have to think if they want to move forward with this.”

When asked who is to blame for the program’s shortcomings, Stana said that DHS, the federal agency in charge, should have done a better job overseeing the SBI program.

The man in charge of the program at DHS agreed. “There have been mistakes in the way we proceeded in the technology part of this program,” said Mark Borkowski, executive director of the Secure Border Initiative. Borkowski explained that some of the problems originated with Boeing, the private contractor in charge of putting the high-tech fence together. Borkowski said, “Am I happy with Boeing? No. Did they have problems? Yes. We’re working with Boeing and they are getting better.”

Boeing sent KFOX a statement saying, “We look forward to applying lessons learned and providing the same capabilites in the next deployment on the Southwest Border…. Boeing has the right team in place to deliver SBInet technology that will enhance agent safety and that is a valuable use of taxpayer funds.”

In an interview with KFOX, Borkowski said the SBI program is on the right track, but he warned that there may be more delays. He explained that he plans to take his time, so that DHS could adequately conduct more risk-assessment tests to determine whether a virtual fence would be needed along the entire stretch of the border. “If you take too many risks, you get bitten,” Borkowski said. “We’re going to be more deliberate about what we should put where, and when.”

The GAO, however, warns there will be consequences to further delays because the Border Patrol will then be forced to rely on old equipment that’s not always reliable. “The Border Patrol finds itself in a situation where they’re using old methods and old technology to address border security concerns…and that’s the problem,” said Stana.
Stana’s report has infuriated lawmakers and taxpayer groups.  “To find out we’re so far behind is very, very disappointing,” said Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas). “Obviously, the money has not been spent the way we expected it would be to secure the border, so I would say that DHS is the principal culprit here.”
Laura Peterson with the group Taxpayers for Common Sense cast a bigger net of blame, pointing a finger at lawmakers. “I think that Congress has to assume a lot of the blame,” Peterson said. “Neither Congress nor DHS went into this enormously expensive program with any real benchmarks for succeeding. So how can you be effective when you don’t know what you’re trying to do?”