Boeing's 'virtual fence' on Mexican border is full of holes, critics say
After 3 years and $500 million, Boeing getting a chance to fix glitchy border system
By Oscar Avila
The Chicago Tribune, September 27, 2009
Along the boundary between Arizona and Mexico recently, Border Patrol agent Michael Scioli weaved his SUV through unforgiving rock formations and hills of desert brush. Illegal immigrants covertly were crossing the border nearby, but Scioli's agency doesn't always have the manpower to know exactly where.
Scioli then passed a 98-foot-tall tower fitted with cameras, a high-tech extra set of eyes that he and other agents presumably would welcome. 'Don't have much to say about that,' the agent said tersely.
The tower is part of a network of cameras and sensors rolled out with great fanfare by Chicago-based Boeing Co. three years ago but now is largely disowned by Border Patrol agents and lambasted by lawmakers and government watchdogs.
The so-called virtual fence, which has received $500 million from the Department of Homeland Security, should have been fully in place already in southern Arizona. Instead, the department scrapped the first attempt, which cost Boeing at least $40 million in overruns.
Now, Boeing is trying to revive the troubled project after the U.S. government gave the company a second chance this month.
Homeland Security officials say technology is a necessary tool to track not only illegal immigrants but also violent Mexican drug smugglers and even potential terrorist threats.
Boeing has declined interview requests about its work on the project. But at a hearing this month, the company tried to reassure skeptical lawmakers of progress in fixing glitches.
'I am amazed that we have spent [this much] and don't have a system that works,' Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, told Boeing and government representatives at the hearing. 'America is screaming for the right kind of security.'
The U.S. government has spent $3.7 billion on border improvements, including fencing and additional personnel, since fiscal 2005.
The government has more than doubled the number of Border Patrol agents, to about 20,000, and built about 600 miles of fencing along the southern border since 2006. But Homeland Security officials say technology is vital — one leg of a three-legged stool, they call it — because of the harsh terrain.
Boeing won a contract in 2006 for the Secure Border Initiative and so far has received more than $500 million to implement a network of cameras, sensors and radar that has been plagued by glitches, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
Flash rainstorms would trip the radar accidentally. Satellite communications — initially thought to be more efficient in terrain where cell towers are sparse — took too long to transmit instructions from cameras to control centers to agents in the field. By the time the agents reached locations minutes later where the cameras had registered a hit, the illegal immigrants had moved on.
A prototype with a name out of science fiction, Project 28, went over budget and Boeing had to kick in at least $40 million beyond what the government paid the company.
With Boeing's three-year technology contract set to expire in September amid few results, the Department of Homeland Security went back to the drawing board. To the surprise of some lawmakers, the government this month exercised a one-year contract option with Boeing.
Mark Borkowski, the Homeland Security official who directs the Secure Border Initiative, said that 'the milk is spilled' and that it would have been too difficult and costly to start over with a new firm. He said the government would not have renewed the contract if it thought Boeing was 'hopeless.'
'Saying it isn't hopeless isn't exactly high praise. It is more than that,' Borkowski said in a telephone interview. 'Boeing hasn't necessarily distinguished itself, but they are improving. They are on an upward trend.'
The network of cameras and sensors was scheduled to be fully operational by this year. Now, the government's new projection for full operation has been pushed back to 2016.
Timothy Peters, Boeing's vice president for global security systems, told lawmakers this month that the company is working to resolve issues in the lab so the network will be 'robust and reliable.'
Lawmakers remained skeptical. 'We want to believe you, but in the context of the past, it's going to be tough,' Rep. Christopher Carney, D-Pa., told project representatives.
Borkowski said the government deserves part of the blame for approving an overly ambitious project without sufficient testing. The government mistakenly thought it could use technology available 'off the shelf' instead of developing new systems, he said.
He said the government has simplified the project, removing in-vehicle monitors that didn't work well. The project also has switched from satellite to microwave communication signals. The goal is to give agents a system that merges data from ground sensors, video cameras and radar.
The government already has installed 17 towers to watch over a 23-mile stretch south of Tucson, Ariz. The project managers are finishing a new round of testing and plan to turn the network over to the Border Patrol in January.
Borkowski said the future of the project depends on that field testing. Some lawmakers complain that the government has lowered expectations too much: The new system has to detect only seven of 10 incursions to be considered acceptable.
Even though the Bush administration initiated the virtual fence, the new version of the project has political ramifications for the current administration. President Barack Obama wants to offer a path to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants in the country, but supporters say there will be little political will if the U.S. has not succeeded in securing its borders.
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents about 17,000 agents, said he worries that this political pressure has jammed through a system that is ineffective at an astronomical cost.
'The electorate is saying they want the border secured, so [the government] is moving forward regardless of the warning flags,' Bonner said. 'That generally translates into a recipe for fraud, waste and abuse. It's a question of value for the taxpayer's dollar. It's not an endless trough.'