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Government pulls plug on virtual border fence

High-tech Boeing project beset with problems

WASHINGTON – The Department of Homeland Security, apparently ready to cut its losses on a so-called invisible fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, has decided not to exercise a one-year option for Boeing to continue work on the troubled multibillion-dollar plan involving high-tech cameras, radar and vibration sensors.

The result, after an investment of more than $1 billion, may be a system with only 53 miles of unreliable coverage along the nearly 2,000-mile border.

The virtual fence was intended to link advanced monitoring technologies to command centers for Border Patrol to identify and thwart human trafficking and drug smuggling. But from the beginning, the program has been plagued by missed deadlines and the limitations of existing electronics in rugged, unpredictable wilderness where high winds and a tumbleweed can be enough to trigger an alarm.

Homeland Security officials decided on Sept. 21 not to invoke the department’s option with Boeing, the principal contractor on the project, and instead extended the deal only to mid-November, Boeing officials confirmed this week. Boeing has charged DHS more than $850 million since the project began in 2006.

The government has not released an independent assessment of the program completed in July, but with the two-month Boeing extension about to run out, several members of Congress expect DHS to rule soon on the fate of the invisible fence, the high-tech portion of the $4.4 billion Secure Border Initiative.

DHS spokesman Matt Chandler would only say a new way forward for the program “is expected shortly.”

But given that the virtual fence has yet to pass muster even in the 53-mile test area – two sections in Arizona that officials acknowledge won’t be fully operational until 2013 – and the government’s lack of interest in extending Boeing’s contract, most do not expect DHS to invest billions more in a project that has continually disappointed.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he hopes DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano acts soon. “The program is headed in the wrong direction,” Thompson said.

Even as scrutiny of the program increased in the past year, Boeing has not provided accurate information on the progress of the program, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released Monday. The study found an unusually high number of errors in the data given to DHS by Boeing.

A spokeswoman for Boeing said the company has “worked closely with Customs and Border Protection to overcome past performance and management challenges.” She added that Boeing is committed to completing the testing and delivery of the system, called SBInet, at the Tucson and Ajo stations, which comprise the 53-mile test zones.

“It would be a great shame to scrap SBInet,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who has encouraged DHS to bring to the Southwest technology the military is using on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Technology is key to solving these border issues.”

Some of the technology, such as remote cameras, night-vision video and mobile surveillance, is being used by agents in the Arizona test areas, which see a high level of cross-border traffic. But the effectiveness is far from what was requested by DHS and promised by Boeing when the project began.

Daytime cameras are able to monitor only half the distance expected. Ground sensors can identify off-road vehicles, but not humans, as initially envisioned by the government.

“It turned out to be a harder technological problem than we ever anticipated,” Mark Borkowski, executive director of the electronic fence program at DHS, said earlier this year. “We thought it would be very easy, and it wasn’t.”

Congress was sold on the initiative as a way to combine newfangled gadgetry with old-fashioned fences to secure the entire U.S. border with Mexico. So far, physical fencing has been installed over 600 miles of terrain under the program. But the technological portion has languished.

DHS spokesman Chandler said Customs and Border Protection will determine “if there are alternatives that may more efficiently, effectively and economically meet our nation’s border security needs.”