Funding, Work to Cease on 'Virtual Fence' Along U.S.-Mexico Border

March 17, 2010
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post

The Obama administration will halt new work on a "virtual fence" on the U.S.-Mexican border, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced Tuesday, diverting $50 million in planned economic stimulus funds for the project to other purposes.

Photo: A sign on the fence of a ranch along the US/Mexico border that discourages all trespassers but the Border Patrol near Campo, California in this photo taken March 17, 2008. (Reuters/ Fred Greaves)

Napolitano said the freeze on work beyond two pilot projects in Arizona was pending a broader reassessment. But the move signals a likely death knell for a troubled five-year plan to drape a chain of tower-mounted sensors and other surveillance gear across most of the 2,000-mile southern border.

That vision, initiated in 2006 by President George W. Bush, called for a series of networked cameras, radar and communications gear to help speed the response of U.S. Border Patrol officers to catch illegal immigrants and smugglers over the vast border area. However, the effort has been plagued by technical problems and delays with prime contractor Boeing Corp.

Obama officials embraced the program, known as SBInet, on taking office in 2009, setting out a new five-year timetable for completion. However, the administration last month proposed cutting funding to finish SBInet's first phase by roughly 30 percent to $574 million, under new congressional questioning about the plan's feasibility.

In a four-sentence statement, Napolitano said the department will immediately redeploy $50 million of stimulus funds to other technology, including mobile surveillance devices, sensors, radios and laptop computers.

"Not only do we have an obligation to secure our borders, we have a responsibility to do so in the most cost-effective way possible," Napolitano said. "The system of sensors and cameras along the Southwest border known as SBInet has been plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines."

In a statement, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) called SBInet "a grave and expensive disappointment."

"Today's announcement is recognition that this troubled program needs better management and stronger oversight," Thompson said, adding that his committee would examine the program in a hearing Thursday.

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