Janet Napolitano halts funding for virtual border fence
- Janet Napolitano halts funding for virtual border fence
The virtual border fence was supposed to revolutionize US-Mexico border
security. But delays and glitches led Homeland Security Secretary Janet
Napolitano to freeze its funding Wednesday.
By Daniel B. Wood Staff writer
The Christian Science Monitor
March 17, 2010
Los Angeles - In May 2006, President George W. Bush touted the SBInet
project as "the most technologically advanced border security initiative in
American history." The proposed "virtual border fence" along the US-Mexican
border was to be a string of towers that would use cameras, radar, and
ground sensors to see who was coming across in real time.
Now the project, which spent $2.4 billion between 2005 and 2009, has hit so
many snags that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is freezing its
"Not only do we have an obligation to secure our borders, we have a
responsibility to do so in the most cost-effective way possible," wrote DHS
Secretary Janet Napolitano in a press release Tuesday. "The system of
sensors and cameras along the Southwest border known as SBInet has been
plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines."
In early trials, technical problems and other snafus led to media reports
that DHS and the Boeing Co., which held contracts to build two sections of
the high-tech fence, might mothball the project.
Problems included software glitches, camera images affected by wind and
rain, and radar that had trouble distinguishing sagebrush from camping
migrants or animals.
Boeing officials admitted that the effort had been more challenging than
they anticipated. The project, which was supposed to be handed over to the
US Border Patrol in June 2007 was not accepted until December. At a
congressional hearing, Richard Stana, Homeland Security and Justice Director
for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that the first phase of
the project "did not fully meet the user needs." A shift in funding
Now - reportedly two days before the release of a GAO report that was said
to criticize the project - Ms. Napolitano says that DHS will shift the
It will redeploy $50 million of Recovery Act funding originally allocated to
"commercially available security technology along the Southwest border,
including mobile surveillance, thermal imaging devices, ultra-light
detection, backscatter units, mobile radios, cameras ,and laptops for
pursuit vehicles, and remote video surveillance system enhancements,"
Napolitano's statement said.
Critics of the virtual border fence project have been quick to respond.
"It's a good thing they have finally acknowledged the obvious, that SBInet
is a failure, and they are going to evaluate it," says T.J. Bonner,
president of the National Border Patrol Council, a professional labor union
representing more than 17,000 US Border Patrol agents and support staff.
Mr. Bonner thinks that DHS needs to examine the entire premise of using
technology at the border.
"We already detect more traffic of illegals than we can apprehend, so we
feel the money is better spent putting more boots on the ground than in
looking at more technology," he says. "With more personnel cutbacks planned
for next year, doesn't this underline the need to rethink those?"
"DHS could have been more vigilant in oversight," Rep. Bennie Thompson,
D-Miss., chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security told NPR
Wednesday, "but I can tell you there is no stomach or energy on this
committee for this project continuing in its present form." Changes at the
Other experts say that Napolitano's actions are related to recent incidents
at the border.
"Despite evidence of funding constraints at the DHS, Napolitano's actions
signal a more deliberate effort by the agency to crack down on illegal
immigration at the US-Mexican border in the wake of the shootings that took
place in Ciudad Juarez on Saturday, leaving three individuals with ties to
the US consulate dead," says Catherine Wilson, an assistant professor of
political science at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, who studies
On Wednesday, the State Department issued an advisory for US citizens
traveling in Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey, and
Matamoros, and has authorized the departure of family members of US
government personnel in these areas, she notes.
The main question the public should be asking about a virtual border fence
is whether the DHS is fully aware of the long-term performance of the
security technologies involved, Dr. Wilson and others say.
"Will they, in fact, be more cost-effective than those technologies used in
the past?" she asks. "Is this a good use of Recovery Act funding?"
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