History Repeats? New Book 'The Fence' Outlines Story of DHS' Virtual Border Wall Fiasco

By Stew Magnuson
The third time may not be a charm when it comes to the Department of Homeland Security’s latest effort to use technology to keep illegal migrants and illicit drugs from crossing the Southwest border.
So says Robert Lee Maril, a sociology professor of sociology at East Carolina University who has written, “The Fence: National Security, Public Safety, and Illegal Immigration along the U.S.-Mexico Border,” one of the first book-length investigations of Customs and Border Protection’s controversial Secure Border Initiative program, and its efforts to construct a so-called “virtual” wall in Arizona.
History repeated itself when the program kicked off in 2006, Maril points out in the book, which will be released March 15. A pre-publication copy was provided to National Defense.
During the Clinton administration, the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System was conceived as a network of ground sensors and camera towers that would notify the Border Patrol when intruders crossed the international line. Previous ground sensors were completely unreliable, had no way of determining the difference between a human and a cow, and their locations were well known to drug cartels and human smugglers, who possessed detailed maps of their locations.
The initial $2 million noncompetitive contract was given to International Microwave Corp, of East Norwalk, Conn., which was later acquired by L-3 Communications. It would go on to receive $239 million in noncompetitive contracts, Maril said.
“ISIS’s reliance on high-tech solutions neglected or ignored the observations of agents over decades of patrolling the line. The planners and designers of ISIS, the L-3 engineers, grossly underestimated the motivation, talents, and relentlessness of those seeking illegal entry into this country,” Maril wrote.
Border crossers easily outwitted fixed camera towers. By 2004, reports from government sources and sworn testimony to congressional subcommittees suggested that the ISIS program was a failure of grand proportions. Not only were its objectives never met, but also considerable federal funds had been squandered. It was functionally inoperable.
By the time the Secure Border Initiative came around two years later, institutional memory of ISIS was in short supply at the newly created DHS, Maril contends. In rebranding the program and calling it the Secure Border Initiative, then DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff “grossly underestimated CBP’s ability to manage efficiently” the program, Maril wrote.
Many of the same criticisms of ISIS were echoed in Government Accountability Office reports on SBInet years later. Namely, that the input of Border Patrol agents was not taken into account, and the CBP did not have the ability to properly oversee the program, which had been handed over to The Boeing Co.
Maril told National Defense that he was surprised when he read the requirements documents for SBInet. They were almost the same as ISSI. After the apparent demise of SBInet in January, DHS on FedBizOps released a request for information for a possible third attempt at deploying sensors. The department once again is interested in camera towers and ground sensors, and stresses the need to push the data collected to Border Patrol agents.
Is this “part three” of the same boondoggle? He hopes DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, who was governor of Arizona, and has a better understanding of border issues, doesn’t allow history to repeat itself.
Maril interviewed some 120 sources for "The Fence," and relied on his deep contacts in the Border Patrol. In a two-year period just prior to 9/11, when teaching in southern Texas, he was given unfettered access to agents on the beat. He accompanied officers on 60 shifts lasting up to 10 hours each. That resulted in the book, “Patrolling Chaos: The U.S. Border Patrol in Deep South Texas.”
 In 2006, Maril was flown to Florida to consult with Honeywell engineers who were gearing up to bid on Project 28, CBP’s 28-mile-long pilot program for SBInet that would eventually be constructed south of Tucson, Ariz.  Before giving his PowerPoint presentation, he asked the roomful of engineers if any had actually been to the Southwest border. None raised their hands. Over the course of the next day, he observed as the engineers pondered which sensors originally designed to monitor Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile sites could be taken “off the shelf” to monitor the border. (Honeywell ultimately decided not to bid on the project).
Boeing eventually won the contract, which provided $20 million to construct a mix of sensors, communications backbone and a common operating picture that would be transmitted to officers in their vehicles. That system never worked well. But Boeing later received more than $1 billion worth of contracts to continue its work over the next four years.
Maril began to write "The Fence" after his Border Patrol contacts told him that DHS’ public proclamations of how well SBInet was working were essentially wrong. One of the key problems is that Washington lawmakers, bureaucrats and contractors have little to no understanding of the culture and history of the Southwest borderlands. There is little thought given to the unintended consequences of using technology on the border, Maril said.
DHS officials have claimed success because of the reduced number of apprehensions of illegal migrants on the border. But that could be attributed to the poor economy, Maril said. High-profile drug busts are written off by cartels as acceptable losses. The true indication of whether drug interdiction policies are having an effect is the street price of illegal narcotics. They remain about the same price and are readily available, he said. He gives no credence to the theory that international terrorists will use the porous border to cross into the United States.
“Human beings are ingenious and the pull factors here are still fairly strong regardless of the technology,” he said. “I kind of feel that technology is not always going to get us out of trouble."
There are at least some signs that DHS is learning from its past mistakes. CBP in July named SBInet program manager Mark Borkowski its first assistant commissioner for technology innovation and acquisition. Comments made at a Washington event last fall by Borkowski seemed to confirm that SBInet was in complete disarray when he arrived in 2008. Only now is CBP putting together an acquisition enterprise that resembles that of the Defense Department. CBP is also purchasing some 80 mobile camera towers, and seems to be moving away from the fixed towers that border crossers easily avoided.

Topics: Homeland Security, Border Security

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