WASHINGTON - The Obama administration on Friday ended plans for a high-tech southern border fence that cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion but did little to improve security.
Congress ordered the fence in 2006 amid a clamor over the porous border, but the project yielded only 53 miles of protection. Elements of the the fence were tested in border areas near Tucson.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the lesson of the multimillion-dollar program is that there is no "one-size-fits-all" border-security solution.
Napolitano said the department's new technology strategy for securing the border is to use existing, proven technology tailored to the distinct terrain and population density of each region of the nearly 2,000-mile U.S-Mexico border. That would provide faster technology deployment, better coverage and more bang for the buck, she said.
Although it has been well-known that the "virtual fence" project would be dumped, Napolitano officially informed key members of Congress Friday that an "independent, quantitative, science-based review made clear" the fence, known as SBInet, "cannot meet its original objective of providing a single, integrated border-security technology solution."
The fence, initiated in 2005, was to be a network of cameras, ground sensors and radars that would be used to spot incursions or problems and decide where to deploy Border Patrol agents. It was supposed to be keeping watch over most of the border with Mexico by this year.
Instead, taxpayers ended up with about 53 miles of operational virtual fence in Arizona for a cost of at least $15 million a mile, according to testimony in previous congressional hearings.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the concept was unrealistic from the start. Napolitano's decision "ends a long-troubled program that spent far too much of the taxpayers' money for the results it delivered," Lieberman said.
The high-tech fence was developed as part of a Bush administration response to a demand for tighter border security that arose amid a heated immigration debate in Congress.
The Bush administration awarded Boeing a three-year, $67 million contract. Michael Chertoff, then Homeland Security secretary, said at the time that the department was "looking to build a 21st century virtual fence."
But the fence had a long list of glitches and delays. Its radar system had trouble distinguishing between vegetation and people in windy weather, cameras moved too slowly and satellite communications also were slow. Although some of the concept is in use in two sections of Arizona, the security came at too high a cost.
DHS and Boeing officials have said the project called for putting together the first-of-its-kind virtual fence too quickly by combining off-the-shelf components that weren't designed to be linked
Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, top Democrat of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the committee held 11 hearings on the project and commissioned five reports by the Government Accountability Office, which blasted the project. Thompson, who chaired the committee until Republicans took over the House this month, called the project a grave and expensive disappointment.
Some technologies from the project, such as stationary radar and infrared and optical sensor towers, will be used in future border security that will rely largely on mobile surveillance systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, thermal imaging devices and tower-based remote video-surveillance systems. Money that was provided in an interim spending bill for the high-tech fence will go to the proven technologies.