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DHS official: Virtual border fence a ‘complete failure'

Apr. 20, 2010 - 06:13PM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Alan Bersin of the Office of International Affairs.
Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Alan Bersin of the Office of International Affairs. (ALEX WONG / GETTY IMAGES)

The Homeland Security Department today said its virtual border fence has been a "complete failure," and is trying to figure out how to proceed on the troubled $2 billion project.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that some individual pieces of surveillance technology in the SBInet program have worked. But integrating them together into a comprehensive system which was to be the heart of the SBInet program has proven to be more complicated than current technology can handle, Bersin said.

"I wouldn't say that theoretically, at some point, we couldn't have the kind of sophisticated technological integration that SBInet originally projected," Bersin said. "But in the near term, wholesale integration is not a goal that is practicable," Bersin said.

Bersin would not say whether Homeland Security would cancel the contract.

Homeland Security hired Boeing in 2006 to install thousands of video and infrared cameras, radars and ground sensors to provide constant surveillance along the Southwest border. Computers and software were meant to combine that information to produce a real-time picture of smugglers and migrants.

But after spending between $700 million and $800 million to build a 28-mile pilot version of the system in Arizona, Homeland Security has almost nothing to show for it. The system has difficulty seeing clearly and often transmits false alarms.

Bersin said Homeland Security is now conducting an assessment of the program to see if the project can continue, or, if not, if anything can be salvaged. The department is also reviewing each sector along the U.S.-Mexico border to figure out what technologies would help them secure their areas against smugglers and illegal immigrants. He did not say when those assessments would be completed.

Lawmakers are outraged at the project's failure. Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., said that the Government Accountability Office should conduct an investigation to find out how it got so badly off-track.

And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that SBInet's failure is especially troubling while Mexican drug cartel violence is growing and risks spilling over into American border towns like El Paso.

"It's a disgrace," McCain said.

Tell us what you think. E-mail slosey@federaltimes.com?subject=Reader Question">STEPHEN LOSEY.

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