October 12, 2009
by William Matthews
The idea was to build a "virtual fence" of cameras and radars that would keep watch over America's southern and northern borders.
Eventually other sensors, perhaps UAVs, and even satellites would augment the army of unblinking electronic eyes focused on the borders. They would automatically alert human agents when terrorists, smugglers and illegal immigrants tried to sneak into the United States.
Reality is a bit different.
The $3.7 billion spent so far has bought a patchwork of sub-par technology that often can't tell a terrorist from a tumbleweed.
Cameras and radars mounted on tall poles can be so shaken by the wind and blinded by the rain that they don't see clearly. The radars report intruders where there are none. The cameras have trouble seeing and then transmitting images back to human monitors.
When it was begun in 2006, the Secure Border Initiative - called SBInet - was supposed to be completed early this year. But by the time that due date rolled around, the estimated date of completion had slid out to 2016.
SBInet has bedeviled the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees it; embarrassed Boeing, which is trying to build it; and exasperated Congress, which is asked annually to fund it.
"It's hard for me to believe that the Department of Homeland Security would award a contract of $1.1 billion over three years, and continue to award task orders without viable results," Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., told DHS and Boeing officials during a recent hearing.
Sanchez heads the House Homeland Security subcommittee on border, maritime and global counterterrorism.
"It is hard to be optimistic," said Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind. "We sit here today and have partial technology deployed along just 23 miles of the southwest border." Despite billions of dollars spent, "it seems that very little progress has been made. It's been very slow."
And it hasn't just been a technology problem.
Along with the electronic virtual fence, there are about 630 miles of actual, physical fence, which have proven also to be problematic.
For one thing, costs are climbing. "What used to cost us $3.5 million a mile is now at $6.5 million a mile," Sanchez said.
That's fencing designed to keep people out. The cost for barriers designed to stop vehicles "has gone from $1 million to $1.8 million per mile," Sanchez reported.
"And that's sort of unbelievable considering that construction costs - because, you know, we haven't been building - construction has been in the dumps," she said.
The physical fences don't work much better than their electronic counterparts.
"There have been about 3,300 breaches in the fence, and it costs us about $1,300 every time that we have to repair them," Sanchez said. "And that being said, we have yet to see whether or not this fencing has increased border security and has justified its costs."
Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), has a simple answer to that.
"No," Stana said when asked by Rep. Christopher Carney, D-Pa., "Have the American taxpayers so far gotten what they paid for?"
In a September report on SBInet, Stana described construction delays, rising costs and equipment that doesn't meet performance standards.
"I just don't understand, just from a technical standpoint, why it's so difficult," said Rep. Michael Rogers, R-Ala. "I mean, they're basically cameras on a pole, and we've got folks monitoring multiple cameras."
SBInet "was supposed to be a relatively easy project," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. "We were told that Boeing would be integrating existing off-the-shelf technology to create a virtual fence."
Boeing has tried, said Timothy Peters, a Boeing vice president in charge of SBInet.
"During this development, we have encountered technological challenges common to the integration of commercial off-the-shelf components," he said.
But problems are being corrected, and "I believe we have a system that is robust and soon will be ready for widespread deployment," Peters told lawmakers.
SBInet was designed to use radar to detect possible intruders, then use video cameras to make a positive identification - distinguishing people and vehicles from animals or other nonthreats.
But the GAO has repeatedly reported troubles.
For example, on windy days, radars have reported too many false detections, Stana said. Some of the system's newest cameras were less capable than older prototype models. And SBInet has been unable to provide reliable signals for its wireless network and remote-controlled cameras.
Standards have been lowered so that the next portion of SBInet, called Block 1, can be declared acceptable by DHS, Stana said.
"The spec for acceptance of Block 1 is now a 70 percent identification rate," he said. "So that means when you are talking about drug runners or bad criminals, it [Block 1] can be accepted if they can find seven out of 10 of them."
That means that "three out of 10 are going to get by and you can still accept the program," he said.
That's not reassuring to lawmakers like Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who worries about the drug war raging just across the border in Mexico.
On a visit to the border, McCaul said, he was shown "the physical fence" that separates El Paso, Texas, from Juarez, Mexico, which McCaul identified as "probably the most violent city in the American continent."
"That is the threat," he said. "That is why getting operational control of the border is so important."
But a virtual fence for El Paso has been delayed until 2014 at the earliest.
"Why in the world does this take so long to do?" McCaul asked.