ARIVACA — Homeland Security plans to replace nine camera towers along a 28-mile stretch of border flanking Sasabe with new models by the end of 2008.
The towers — the backbone of a $20.6 million Boeing Co. test project known as Project 28 — have been operational for about three months but have failed to meet expectations since going up in summer 2007.
Border Patrol agents began using the system in December and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff officially accepted the system on Feb. 22 — eight months after the scheduled launch date.
"We are now moving on with the next state-of-the-art project," said Tom King, director of the SBInet field offices in Washington D.C., at a community meeting in Arivaca. "We are going to replace those towers with the new, stout towers." SBInet is part of Homeland Security's Secure Border Initiative.
"The technology that is on those towers isn't as effective as technology that is available today. … You have to understand that that was back in October of 2006 technology, and there is better technology out there today. We have proven technology that is actually very successful for us," King said.
The new 80-foot towers will use the same cameras and radar that are on 12-foot mobile surveillance units that Border Patrol agents use from the back of agency trucks, King said.
"We think, somebody who hired me thinks, that we put this technology on the tower, we will be a lot more successful than we are right now and improve the apprehension rate," King said.
Although he didn't know the amount of the new contract for the latest towers, King said it has been awarded to Boeing.
In December, Homeland Security awarded Boeing a $64.5 million contract to upgrade the SBInet operating software and an $8 million contract for maintenance and logistics support for Project 28, a Government Accountability Office report said.
Through Feb. 15, Boeing had been awarded $1.154 billion in contracts for Secure Border Initiative projects, the report states.
In September 2006, Homeland Security awarded the prime contract for the Secure Border Initiative to Boeing for three years with three one-year options. That made Boeing the prime contractor responsible for acquiring, deploying and sustaining selected technology and tactical infrastructure, or fences, roads and vehicle barriers.
Arivaca residents who predicted the system wouldn't work questioned why Boeing would get paid again for a second attempt.
"Boeing has proven themselves totally inept and incapable of fulfilling the contract, so why reward them with additional contracts?" said Bruce Schockett, a 61-year-old professional photographer who has lived in Arivaca for 25 years.
"They seem to be just throwing more money at Boeing," said Peter Ragan, a resident of Arivaca for five years. "It seems to be very open-ended. … It makes you ask the question, who's running the show? Every time Boeing reaches a new obstacle, they get a new contract."
When asked why Boeing would get another contract after failing to meet expectations with the first one, King said: "I don't know how to answer that. It's a contract, they have the main contract for the Secure Border Initiative. And they are doing better."
The current 98-foot towers — equipped with radar, cameras and sensors — were supposed to be able to scan the entire 28-mile area and detect illegal entries in one of the busiest areas for illegal immigration along the Southwest border.
The information collected would be sent to computers in control rooms and laptops in Border Patrol vehicles.
But a host of glitches delayed implementation of the system and rendered the test project a disappointment, and to critics, a complete failure. The problems included, according to a February Government Accountability Office report:
● It took too long for radar information to come up on computer screens.
● Rain and other weather were activating radar.
● Resolution of the camera image became problematic at 3.1 miles, despite expectations that the cameras would capture images at nearly twice that distance. These problems were still persistent as late as February.
● Laptops mounted in Border Patrol vehicles to receive the data collected by radar and cameras were nearly unusable. They weren't mounted securely enough to withstand rough terrain, and the pencil-shaped styluses meant to manipulate the screens were difficult to use while driving. Touch screens would have been better, agents said.
Secure Border Initiative officials said the software Boeing selected was intended to be used as a law-enforcement dispatch system and not designed to handle the type of information being collected by the cameras, radar and sensors, the report said.
Agents have apprehended 3,100 illegal entrants using the towers, King said. That's a relatively small number in the Tucson Sector, the Southwest border's busiest, where nearly 1,000 apprehensions are made daily in the 262-mile area.
"Boeing's concept has been … it didn't hit the ground running, let's say that," King said.
"It's a boondoggle," Schockett said. "Obviously, they have carte blanche to do whatever they want."
"It was an absolute, complete waste of money because that technology isn't really useable anywhere else," Ragan said.
King, however, objects to such harsh criticism of Project 28.
"Those towers aren't a loss. It isn't a waste of money," King said. "Maybe the cameras don't work in this area, but those cameras do serve a purpose for other locations."
"It did work, it does work," King said. "Not as successful as we thought, but it is what it is."
It is not the first time a high-tech border security project has failed to meet expectations. Homeland Security and its precursors spent $429 million between 1998 and 2005 on border surveillance systems that were set off by movement of animals, trains and wind, the department's office of inspector general reported in 2005.
The nine replacement towers will be put up throughout the same 28-mile area flanking Sasabe but not necessarily in the same locations, he said. Two of the towers are currently up on the Tohono O'odham Nation, and the other seven in the Altar Valley southwest of Tucson.
Officials are doing research around the area to choose the locations for the new towers, King said. No timeline has been set for the selection of those locations. King indicated that the tower located two miles south of Arivaca would likely be moved, which pleased many at the meeting.
"I'm not going to say it's gone," King said. "But we don't think that location is successful. ... Not all towers are as successful as others."
The current tower sites won't be removed immediately, King said. The other tower sites will be up and made operational before they are taken away, he said.
Arivaca residents expressed skepticism about the prospect of the newest towers slowing down illegal entries.
No technology can reconfigure a landscape full of hills and canyons that make line-of-sight cameras ineffective, Ragan said.
"I don't expect new technology to increase that efficiency," he said. "The same problems with the technology and the topography still exist."
Boeing and Homeland Security have learned from the errors made, King says. In addition, Border Patrol agents will have more input this time, said Ruben A. Gutierrez, director of the Southwest office for SBInet in Tucson.
Border Patrol officials worked with Boeing during the planning and implementation of Project 28 but weren't allowed to make any recommendations, due to the contract rules, he said.
Did you know
The Secure Border Initiative, known as SBI, was unveiled Nov. 2, 2005, by the Department of Homeland Security. The multi-year plan is aimed at securing U.S. borders and reducing illegal migration by gaining control of the borders and strengthening interior enforcement.
SBInet is a component of that initiative that focuses on technology and fences, vehicle barriers and roads. The first part of SBInet was Project 28, a virtual-fence concept from Boeing Co.