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Arizona Republic September 21, 2006

Boeing wins contract to build 'virtual fence'

By Mike Madden

WASHINGTON - The federal government will spend at least $80 million on a high-tech "virtual fence" along U.S. borders in an effort to stop illegal immigration, even though earlier technology systems have failed to do that.

The giant defense and aerospace firm Boeing beat out other big contractors for the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Border Initiative project, which will deploy observation towers, sensors and cameras along the borders and integrate computer systems used by Border Patrol agents and other immigration authorities.

Boeing won the project by focusing on less expensive, less advanced and less risky technology than its rivals, said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

Homeland Security and Boeing officials would not comment on the new contract, which is expected to be formally announced today. The system could eventually cost $2.5 billion over the next five years, according to earlier government estimates.

The new system will use hundreds of towers similar to those the U.S. Border Patrol already has along the U.S.-Mexican border to watch for intrusions. The towers will be equipped with sensors and cameras built by subcontractors - including a company that designed border-security systems for Israel. The detection systems will also be used along the Canadian border.

The Bush administration plans to invest heavily in technology to fight illegal immigration, and officials have touted the Secure Border Initiative project for months as the centerpiece of that effort.

"The Boeing proposal basically chose to do it in a simple way that was manageable, affordable and didn't have a high degree of technology risk in the sense that it would break down," Gregg said.

He said Boeing's proposal "wasn't as whiz-bang" as competing proposals to send up unmanned aerial vehicles, "and it wasn't as expensive as they are."

One $10 million unmanned plane crashed south of Tucson in April while patrolling the border, underscoring the potential risk of investing in a fleet of drones.

An earlier system using sensors and cameras, the America's Shield Initiative project, was a $250 million failure, and critics say there is no guarantee the new project will work, even with simplified technology.

"The whole thing is dependent on (the government) providing funding for (U.S. Border Patrol) response teams," said John Pike, president of GlobalSecurity.org, which tracks military and homeland security technology. "You don't have to get very far across the border before the camera can't see you anymore."

Administration officials are trying to hire several thousand more Border Patrol agents as they deploy the new technology, and National Guard troops are posted along the U.S.-Mexican border for now.

Arizona officials said the new system must help Border Patrol agents get better information.

"People talk about fences, but they are by no means the answer," said Julie Mason, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Office of Homeland Security. "For every 50 foot fence, there is a 50 foot ladder. These people are very determined, and it's not just individuals crossing on foot. It's organized groups of ruthless smugglers that have resources."

The SBI contract drew interest from the nation's largest defense companies, which have been pursuing potentially lucrative homeland security contracts since the 2001 terrorist attacks. In an unusual arrangement, Homeland Security officials laid out no specific requirements for the contract, instead asking firms bidding on it to design their own comprehensive border security system from scratch.

"I'm hoping it works," said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security. "It's not worked yet . . . The promise looks good."

Republic staff writer Max Jarman contributed to this article


Copyright 2006, The Arizona Republic