Reboot for "virtual" border fence

After years of snags, work on the electronic surveillance system along the US-Mexico border restarted this week.

The "virtual fence" is back.

A year after the idea bit the Arizona dust – a victim of high expectations and a failed prototype – construction began this week on nine surveillance towers along a stretch of desert south and west of Tucson, Ariz., intended to be part of a high-tech alternative to a physical barrier on the border.

The technology remains similar to that of a failed prototype that was deployed in late 2007, but according to Mark Borkowski, executive director of the Secure Border Initiative within Customs and Border Protection, this time around, the "technology has been changed, tested and retested" and now "does work."

Up to 140 feet high and equipped with cameras, radar, and a microwave link to other towers, the surveillance turrets are supposed to communicate the coordinates and images of moving figures near the border to remote command centers and border patrol vehicles on the ground.

The "fence" is intended to help US border patrol agents stop illegal immigrants and drug smugglers from crossing into the country.

The Department of Homeland Security, which had virtually halted the project a year ago, plans to spend $6.7 billion for the entire Southwest border in the next few years. Boeing, which was paid $20 million for the prototype, has a $100 million contract for building the first section near Tuscon.

That means 30 miles of border completed by mid-2010, all of Arizona by the end of 2011, and possibly, depending on tests and budget decisions, most of the almost 2,000-mile southwest border by 2014.

In the original prototype, a rotating radar dish atop the tower was supposed to detect moving figures on the ground and radio the coordinates to an integrated camera which would then focus on the targets while agents in the vehicles or command post determined if the figures were human or animal. They then radioed the coordinates to the roving patrol cruisers who would swoop in.

But software glitches, wind, and rain affected the camera image quality. And the radar had trouble distinguishing sage-brush from camping migrants or animals.

Such snags raised questions last year from congressional investigators about the viability of the entire project.

The original radar and cameras couldn't stand up to the Arizona wind and heat and the towers couldn't convey the necessary information fast enough, acknowledges Mr. Borkowski.

Part of the problem was "too high expectations," he says. President Bush described the project – known as SBInet – in May 2006 as "the most technologically advanced border security initiative in American history."

Officials have said they've learnt their lesson. "We learned of the shortcomings of satellite communications. We learned that even commercial, off-the-shelf hardware represents a design challenge when it is assembled in new ways into a new system," wrote Jayson Ahern, acting commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection in Congressional testimony March 10. "We learned of the importance for complete and comprehensive engineering and operational tests to confirm the technical design – before we put the system in the hands of the end user for actual operations."

Nevertheless, skeptics remain. The fence entails spending too much money in the wrong way, one that ignores the reality of catching illegal immigrants, says TJ Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents more than 12,000 US border patrol agents.

"Cameras don't come down off the poles and grab people by the ankle and arrest them," says Mr. Bonner. He claims the technology only works on level ground, and that when it is transferred to real terrain – with its mountains and valleys – it becomes useless beyond a few hundred feet.

The only way to make up for that loss is to place so many towers that the cost becomes prohibitive, he suggests. "You would need millions of these towers to be effective, and by that measure, even $6.7 billion doesn't even begin to cover the Southwest border."

Bonner also says smugglers sometimes try to overload the border patrol by staging massive operations at the same time, and so the money might be better spent on agents, holding cells, and ground transportation.

Barkowski counters that the system operating today has already participated in more than 5,000 apprehensions and has intercepted six tons of marijuana.

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