'Virtual fence' gets second chance on U.S. border

The Homeland Security Department is accelerating plans to build a costly and long-troubled "virtual fence" of sensors and cameras along the U.S.-Mexican border, aided by $100 million from the economic stimulus package.

The government already has spent $600 million and built a failed prototype of the high-tech network that would be used by border agents to try to catch illegal immigrants and drug runners.

A 28-mile test patch built in Arizona over the past two years had so many problems that it was scrapped. The department is now embarking on what its officials and members of Congress are calling a "do-over" on the same land near Tucson and another along 30 miles in Ajo, Ariz.

"Our patience is running real thin because we've been at this several years," Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., told Homeland Security officials at an appropriations hearing on border issues Tuesday. "We're expecting results."

Some question whether Boeing, the government contractor for the job, should be allowed to continue with the multiyear, $6.7 billion project after botching the first effort. Its pole cameras and radar and communications systems didn't work well and couldn't be used effectively by border agents.

"It didn't work, and now they're going back and redoing the same spot, and it's the same contractor," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., head of a House subcommittee on border security. "I have been very unhappy about it."

Boeing referred calls to Homeland Security.

Mark Borkowski, the new director of the program at Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) division, said he is convinced that Boeing has learned enough lessons from the failed prototype that it now "has the skills" to get the job done right.

The "virtual fence" is part of a broader plan by the government to secure the porous 2,000-mile southern border. That effort since 9/11 has included the construction, so far, of 600 miles of concrete and steel physical barriers, a near-doubling in size of the Border Patrol to more than 18,000 agents, and plans for the cameras and sensors in Arizona and possibly other border states.

The government has used pole cameras and sensors for years, but they are outdated and not connected to sophisticated communications systems.

Next month, Homeland Security will start over with the "virtual fence" at the two sites in Arizona. It will use all new cameras, sensors and communications equipment — but this time, the equipment was tested first in New Mexican desert this winter.

Based on those tests, "we have confidence in the overall system design," said Jayson Ahern, acting CBP commissioner. He said the system didn't perform perfectly in tests but there were no "show-stopper" problems.

Borkowski said the stimulus money will allow the department to "accelerate" the process of building the virtual fence across the entire Arizona border, which could be done by 2012.

T.J. Bonner, head of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represent agents, says the government shouldn't spend economic stimulus money on a new cameras-and-sensors system when it hasn't seen any return on its investment so far.

"It does feel like throwing good money after bad," Bonner says. "It seems like a boondoggle for contractors."

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