Homeland Security Axes Bush-Era ‘Virtual Fence’ Project

Jan 14, 2011 12:49pm

ABC News' Jason Ryan reports: The Department of Homeland Security today officially scrapped a Bush-era program designed to use radar technology to detect illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a DHS official and a congressional source. The project, called "Virtual Fence," was rolled out under the Bush administration in 2006 with much fanfare about how technology could help secure the border. Illegal immigrants crossing the border would be detected by a radar and picked up by remote cameras, which were monitored by border patrol agents. But numerous internal and Congressional reviews found consistent performance problems with the project's systems, which only spanned 53 miles of the vast U.S.-Mexico border. A DHS assessment released today found that "the SBInet system is not the right system for all areas of the border and it is not the most cost-effective approach to secure the border. However, some elements of the SBInet development have provided useful capability."* "DHS briefed Congress today on my decision to end SBInet as originally conceived and on a new path forward for security technology along the Southwest border," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said today. "There is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution to meet our border technology needs, and this new strategy is tailored to the unique needs of each border region." DHS will utilize some of the existing technologies that were found to be useful in what the agency is calling a southwest border security technology plan. The new plan "will utilize existing, proven technology tailored to the distinct terrain and population density of each border region, including commercially available Mobile Surveillance Systems, Unmanned Aircraft Systems, thermal imaging devices, and tower-based Remote Video Surveillance Systems." Napolitano added.   The issues that the program encountered were wide ranging: cameras often provided blurry images, the radar system performed poorly in bad weather, and it often displayed false detections that were unable to distinguish between humans, cars and animals. There were also cost overruns and the primary contractor, Boeing, repeatedly missed deadlines, officials said. Members of Congress on the oversight committees welcomed the news. “The secretary’s decision to terminate SBInet ends a long-troubled program that spent far too much of the taxpayers’ money for the results it delivered," Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said in a statement. "From the start, SBInet’s one-size-fits-all approach was unrealistic. The department’s decision to use technology based on the particular security needs of each segment of the border is a far wiser approach, and I hope it will be more cost effective.” "The SBInet program has been a grave and expensive disappointment since its inception," Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member of the House Homeland Security committee, said in a statement. The system is estimated to cost about $1 billion. If the entire project had been accepted and rolled out, its cost would have exceeded $6 billion. "We know that we cannot continue to put out millions and millions of dollars of taxpayer's money if we're not confident that it's really not going to work,” Napolitano, who ordered a review of the program upon taking office, said in October. DHS had granted Boeing two 30-day extensions on contracts for the project towards the end of 2010 as it became clear the department was moving to cancel the program. Calls to Boeing for comment were not immediately returned Friday afternoon. NOTE: *The blog was updated at 2:15 p.m.

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