Homeland Security nixes 'virtual fence' border project
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The Department of Homeland Security on Friday canceled a project to build a technology-based "virtual fence" across the U.S.-Mexico border, saying the effort -- on which $1 billion has already been spent -- was ineffective and too costly.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she had decided to end the 5-year-old project, known as SBI-Net, because it "does not meet current standards for viability and cost effectiveness." In a statement, she said border agents would instead use less-expensive technology that is already part of their surveillance equipment, tailoring it to the specific terrain where they will be scouting for illegal border crossers and drug traffickers.
Ms. Napolitano's decision brought a long-expected close to a project carried out by the Boeing Corp. under a contract first signed in 2005 under President George W. Bush, which had been plagued by schedule delays and cost overruns. Originally estimated to cost more than $7 billion to cover the 2,000-mile length of the border, it was the subject of more than a dozen scathing reports by the Government Accountability Office.
In a pilot program in Arizona, it cost about $1 billion to build the system across 53 miles of the state's border. Officials said the new approach, using mobile surveillance systems and unmanned drones already in the Border Patrol's arsenal, would cost less than $750 million to cover the remaining 323 miles of Arizona's border.
Ms. Napolitano suspended financing for the project in March and ordered a review, which was just completed. But officials moved slowly to cancel the project because it had been ensnared in the contentious debate over border security. Many Republican lawmakers have accused the Obama administration of being lax on enforcement, and they said they would not consider an overhaul of immigration laws that President Barack Obama supports until the border is tighter.
Anticipating criticism, homeland security officials released documents Friday showing big increases in the Border Patrol -- from 10,000 in 2004 to 20,500 today -- and other border agents, and a steep decline in the number of immigrants detained at the border, indicating fewer illegal crossings. About 463,000 illegal crossers were detained last year, compared with 724,000 in 2008, according to the figures.
Ms. Napolitano said she had concluded that the original concept of the project, to develop a single technology that could be used across the entire border, was not viable. Boeing had built a complex system of sensors, radars and cameras mounted on towers that was supposed to lead border agents to the exact location of illegal crossers. But the system functioned inconsistently in the rough terrain along much of the border.
"There is no one-size-fits-all solution to meet our border technology needs," she said.
The announcement came in advance of the expiration of the Boeing contract Tuesday, a homeland security official said.
In a statement, Boeing noted that officials said they would continue to use equipment it had designed. "We appreciate that they recognize the value of the integrated fixed towers Boeing has built, tested and delivered so far," the company said.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, criticized the administration for being slow to terminate the program. "I continue to have very serious concerns about the Obama administration's lack of urgency to secure the border," he said.
First Published January 15, 2011 12:00 am