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America's Border-Industrial Complex Can't Get Its Virtual Fences in a Row

Border security will never die. Federal budgets and immigration waves may both be on the wane, but hey, no matter. The U.S-Mexico border-industrial complex continues booming apace, with some even saying there's no end in sight in pushing to build up a...
September 12, 2012, 6:15pm

Border security will never die. Federal budgets and immigration waves may both be on the wane, but hey, no matter. The U.S-Mexico border-industrial complex continues booming apace, with some even saying there’s no end in sight in pushing to build up a functioning, 2,100-mile virtual fence, long the Holy Grail of border security.

Because jobs. Immigration enforcement employs nearly 80,000 federal employees, for one. Border spying creates work. But ’Merica and 9/11, for another, because plugging up border holes has been a truly bipartisan initiative since the attacks, the endless, ad nauseam replaying of which (still) has so many elected officials crowing in concert over the nagging threat of illegals. And so build it up, they have: The existing borderland infrastructure comprises the fence itself, a perennially Swiss-cheesing barrier that in some spots has been built and rebuilt several times over, as NPR reports. Additionally, stands of “towers, sensors and permanent checkpoints” some 25 miles north of the border mesh out over the dusty landscape.


“It is safe to say that there has been more money, manpower, infrastructure, technology, invested in the border-protection mission in the last three years than ever before,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told NPR.

The build up is unprecedented. Tally budgets beginning in 1986 from all agencies with stakes in border security and relations and, adjusting for inflation, you get something to the tune of $219 billion in today’s dollars. That’s comparable to the total costs of the space shuttle program. All this border tech – spy blimps, drones, dogs, scanners, and towers – is literally reengineering the very notion of homeland security.

One problem: That long sought web of national security, with all its attending microwave-, video- and infrared-equipped sensor towers, remains out of grasp. The U.S. just can’t seem to get its virtual border fences in a row.


Prototype tower near Playas, New Mexico (via NPR)

The Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System called for untold thousands of cameras and sensors installed along the Mexican and Canadian borders to sniff out crossers. Before the plan was scraped in 2004, DHS had nearly $240 million allocated in a no-bid contract that tasked International Microwave Corp. with getting the monitoring system up and running. Problems arose when auditors caught wind of IMC billing work that it never did and charging for gear it never provided, “creating a potential for overpayments of almost $13 million,” according to Global Security.


But that’s almost besides the point, because the system straight up didn’t work. The problem was that ISIS components weren’t fully integrated, meaning that just because sensors were coming online didn’t mean that cameras were panning toward the activated sensors in tandem. Global Security explains:

RVS [remote-surveillance system] cameras do not have detection capability regardless of whether they are used in conjunction with sensors. To complicate matters further, because current sensors cannot differentiate between illegal alien activity and incidental activations, caused by animals, seismic activity, or weather, OBP agents [were] often dispatched to false alarms.

America’s Shield

Lighthouse, spy tower, and bullring along US-Mexico border (via Kimberley Skelton)

ISIS didn’t totally die, per se. Like so many failed programs, the ISIS spy apparatus was simply subsumed under the next guy – in this case, an “integrated, national web” known as America’s Shield.

Much like ISIS, the idea behind AS was a centralized command system for the express purpose of tightening up the Canadian and Mexican borders. The plan was to thwart aliens, terrorists, weapons of mass destruction and drugs from infiltrating the U.S. by sharpening these stretches of electronic spyware with beefed up sensor and video specs As Global Security adds, AS would’ve also integrated “state-of-the-market surveillance technologies (air, ground, and marine)” thus increasing “interoperability with other law enforcement agencies.” By 2005, when AS was halted, ISIS/AS had been doled in excess of $429 million since 1997. Cost eventually killed the next great invisible fence: Full projections for ASI topped out approximately $2.5 billion.



SBI installation near Arivaca, Arizona (via)

The DHS was at it again a year later. Dubbed SBI-Net (SBI being shorthand for Secure Border Initiative), the latest program in the U.S.‘s continually bungled virtual fence dream would’ve aligned the four operating limbs of homeland security – Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Coast Guard, and of course Borders and Customs. But it was the same old goal – to launch the definitive, impenetrable, whiz-bang, weather-proof surveillance system spanning the full (see: incredible porous) 2,100-mile border with Mexico.

Boeing was tapped to do the heavy lifting. Before the whole thing went to shit in early 2011, the Seattle-based contractor did manage to up a few towers. As Border Patrol Agent Brent Cagen, standing at the base of one of these payload-laden outposts near Tucson, told NPR: “This has sensor responders on it, as well as a communications package, which is a radar, day and night cameras, infrared, laser technology.”

But with combined coverage of a mere 53 miles, the towers amounted to absolutely nothing resembling the pervasive, all-encompassing shark net the DHS hoped it’d be. Five years and nearly $1 billion later and DHS finally cut its losses and put SBI-Net out of its misery. Not like the virtual-fence dream has ever been anything more than a dream, or anything, but for the moment, at least, any movement toward that goal is dead again.


That could change. As NPR notes, the Feds are reviewing proposals “to build hundreds of new towers.” All the usual suspects of Tier-1 aerospace and defense R&D – firms like Raytheon, Lockheed, and Boeing – are bidding to finally make the dream a reality.

Even still, the DHS’ upcoming budget will fall short of that for previous year, a first for the agency. Border security will never die, of course. But this federal belt-tightening may only see the virtual fence being kept on life support for the imminent future. “DHS is now dealing with the same challenge the entire government’s facing, and that’s the realization that our budget is hemorrhaging from red ink,” Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican and Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told NPR. “And we’ve got to cut spending before it’s too late.”

Meanwhile, a bunch of Fast and Furious weapons have been found in Colombia.

Top: Surveillance outpost in New Mexico (via)

Reach this writer at @thebanderson