Sociologist’s Book Documents DHS’ Virtual Border Wall Failures

By Stew Magnuson
As the Department of Homeland Security considers a third attempt to deploy technology on the Southwest border to stop illegal immigration and drugs, a sociology professor has released a book outlining the many mistakes of the past.

Robert Lee Maril, who teaches at East Carolina University, 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 Fence.

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.

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.

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 work on the new book after his Border Patrol contacts told him that DHS’ public proclamations of how well SBInet was working were essentially wrong.

Many of the same criticisms of ISIS were echoed in Government Accountability Office reports on SBInet as news of its failures emerged. 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. Since the company was given wide leeway to deploy the kinds of technologies it thought would work, and its choices would have implications on the border societies, that was tantamount to handing over foreign policy decisions to a private company, Maril argued. It also allowed CBP officials to take the blame off themselves when everything went wrong and let Boeing be the whipping boy in congressional hearings, he added.

Maril told National Defense that he was surprised when he read the requirement documents for SBInet. They were almost the same as ISIS.

After the apparent demise of SBInet in January, DHS on FedBizOps released a request for information for a possible third attempt at deploying sensors. It, too, described a series of camera towers, ground sensors and the need to push the data collected to Border Patrol agents. Is this “part three” of the same boondoggle? Maril hopes current DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, who was governor of Arizona, and has a better understanding of border issues, doesn’t allow history to repeat itself for a third time.

One of the key problems is that Washington lawmakers, bureaucrats and big defense 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 there, Maril said.

Despite proclamations by Napolitano and CBP that strategies to deploy technology and hire more Border Patrol agents have produced results, Maril sees little meaningful impact. The reduced number of apprehensions of illegal migrants on the border can be attributed to the poor economy, he 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 and are readily available, he said.

“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.”

A copy of the book can be purchased here.

Topics: Homeland Security, Border Security

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