March 30, 2010

Virtual fence

I missed this article about the more than one billion dollars spent on the "virtual wall" that the former administration initiated for our southern border. Seems like this administration is ready to stop wasting more federal funds against an idea whose time hadn't come yet.

Homeland chief Janet Napolitano beat the Government Accountability Office report to the punch when she announced Tuesday that she's freezing funding for the Secure Border Initiative Network.

Homeland Security hired The Boeing Co. 3 1/2 years ago to build a string of towers along the 2,000-mile border. The towers were to integrate off-the-shelf products — cameras, radar, connections to ground sensors — so that Border Patrol agents could see who and what was coming across in real time.

Boeing made big promises about SBInet's capabilities.

"Ninety to 100 percent of all illegal crossers, this camera system was going to identify and characterize this threat," said Rich Stana, who wrote a report on the project last year for the GAO.

Boeing built a 28-mile test section in the Southern Arizona desert. It didn't work. The company regrouped, redesigned and redeployed one set of towers near the first set. It is building another section right now. The entire border was supposed to be covered a year ago, but after three years — and $1.4 billion — the system is still full of bugs.

"Well, it sort of works," Stana said.

It "sort of works." I'm sure that al Qaeda's nuclear-bomb carrying terrorists will be glad to hear that. The recent GAO report is here. I don't think it's half as damaging as it could have been. Maybe the sponsoring congressperson told them go to easy on the project.

Along with defects revealed by system testing, Border Patrol operators participating in an April 2009 user assessment identified a number of concerns. During the assessment, operators compared the performance of Block 1 capabilities to those of existing technologies. While Border Patrol agents noted that Block 1 offered functionality above existing technologies, it was not adequate for optimal effectiveness in detecting items of interest along the border. Users also raised concerns about the accuracy of Block 1’s radar, the range of its cameras, and the quality of its video. Officials attributed some of the identified problems to users’ insufficient familiarity with Block 1; however, Border Patrol officials reported that the participating agents had experience with the existing technologies and had received 2 days of training prior to the assessment. The Border Patrol thus maintained that the concerns generated should be considered operationally relevant.

Could that be any more clinically sterile? "Not adequate for optimal effectiveness in detecting items of interest." I guess that's the fancy way of saying "it sort of works." This was a billion dollar lemon that Boeing contractors oversold to the government, and propelled by congressmen interested in showing their dedication to homeland security, pushed for a really bad idea to be funded. This was always a dumb idea, trading off technology for promises of security.

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