New Border Technology Programs Seek to Avoid Mistakes of the Past

By Stew Magnuson
A renewed push this year to pass immigration reform has put the Southwest border in the spotlight again.

Technology and its place securing the region has had a checkered past — most notably last decade’s effort to build a so-called virtual fence, which was largely seen as a failure.

Before Congress took up legislation this year, Customs and Border Protection had already embarked on another effort to employ fixed-site sensors to help Border Patrol agents catch smugglers and illegal immigrants.

The integrated fixed tower (IFT) and the remote video surveillance system are the agency’s latest attempt to field effective cameras and sensors.

Department of Homeland Security and CBP officials have said they are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past, namely, attempting to field unproven technologies as “one-size-fits-all” solutions, and failing to listen to the users — the Border Patrol agents — to determine what they truly need to accomplish their job.

“We don’t want to go down the path that we went down in 2007 and 2008,” former CBP Commissioner W. Ralph Basham told National Defense.

DHS leaders have made it clear that they don’t want to push the technological envelope. “This is not experimental. They want proven technology that can be integrated, that can produce immediate results,” said Basham, who is now a consultant at the Command Consulting Group in Washington, D.C.

CBP spent $1.1 billion on the Secure Border Initiative, which included SBInet, a program originally designed to place a series of fixed towers along the border, and to stream live video from their cameras into Border Patrol vehicles. Although the ambitious concept was pared down over the years, prime contractor Boeing never delivered a fully working system and the program was ultimately canceled after five years of work in 2011.

In its wake comes the 10-year integrated fixed tower and the remote video surveillance system program budgeted at $1.14 billion and $224 million, respectively.

After sorting through proposals, CBP has downselected vendors for the IFT program. They are expected to demonstrate their working systems this summer.

Robert Lee Maril, a professor of sociology at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., and author of two books about the Border Patrol — “The Fence” and “Patrolling Chaos,” said, “We keep making the same kinds of mistakes over and over. One of those mistakes is the belief that, ‘If we just find the right kind of technology, it will solve all of our problems.’”

Maril began his research while teaching at universities near the border in Brownsville, Texas, and maintains contacts in the Border Patrol. “The Fence” documents the pitfalls of the SBInet program and its fixed-tower predecessors, which date back to the 1990s.

CBP documents describing the IFT system read remarkably like SBInet, Maril noted.

One stated that the “systems will assist agents in detecting, tracking, identifying and classifying items of interest along our nation’s borders through a series of fixed sensor towers and command-and-control center equipment that displays information on a common operating picture.”

One of Maril’s findings is how Border Patrol agents were frozen out of the SBInet conversations. Vendors proposed engineering solutions without ever consulting the officers on the ground as to what they needed. Several Government Accountability Office reports on the program backed up those assertions. Higher-ups at CBP didn’t include input from the ultimate users of the system, either.

“I could never understand why they didn’t use the Border Patrol [agents] in terms of their expertise. They were essentially excluded from the decision-making process in terms of which technologies were needed and how to use them. They weren’t asked,” Maril said.

Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the labor union representing agents, said he doesn’t have any first-hand knowledge that anyone lower than the command level has been consulted about the new program.

“Our concern is that we want a proven and tested technology that is going to help us do our job. ... Technology is great, but if we don’t have people available to respond to detections or sightings, the technologies are really worthless to us unless we can get someone there.”

As for the SBInet virtual fence, “Anytime it rained, the system thought we were being overrun by tens of thousands of people,” he said in an interview.

“We need things that are going to work and help us do our job. We don’t need all the bells and whistles if they are never going to be available,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Border Patrol is suffering under sequestration. Agents are having to double up in vehicles in order to save fuel, Moran said. He wished CBP could provide the agents the basics first: reliable vehicles, communication devices, uniforms and ammunition. 

Basham said CBP has come to realize that one technology isn’t going to solve all the problems on the border. There needs to be an almost mile-by-mile analysis of what is needed there.

“San Diego is different from the suburbs of San Diego, and it’s different than the desert of Arizona. We need to take a hard look at what can be effective and not get locked into a single solution because we have seen that that did not work,” he said.

Maril, whose book “The Fence” documented how smugglers easily thwarted fixed towers and ground sensors, said there is still a place for them in certain areas such as chokepoints where they can’t be skirted.

“DHS and the Border Patrol is now saying that ‘one size doesn’t fit all.’” Maril said. “This is where I think history is particularly helpful, because that’s not what they were saying as recently as a couple of years ago.”

During the past few years, CBP has come to rely on mobile towers that are deployed from trucks. They are more flexible and those seeking to intrude can’t predict where they are going to be placed.

Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher said in a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security hearing that the agency was currently favoring mobile systems over fixed towers.

“No matter how much technology [the Border Patrol] gets, there is no substitute for a well-trained Border Patrol agent,” he said in the hearing.

“It doesn’t matter what you have in the air. It doesn’t matter how many ground sensors you have buried in the ground, a lot of times … a Border Patrol agent has to close that last 15 meters by himself or herself,” he testified.

Moran said there are technologies that are helping such as ground motion sensors, mobile surveillance systems and infrared sensors.

The new vehicle dismount and exploitation radar (VADER) placed aboard unmanned aerial vehicles has been effective in detecting border crossers. But it is also showing that the agents are only interdicting about half of the intruders. The new sensor, which is adept at tracking targets who are on foot, is showing that agents can’t always get to smugglers and migrants before they get away, Moran said.

The agency needs to be honest with the public and lawmakers when it comes to these apprehension numbers, he said.

Representatives at the House hearing brought up a long-standing problem. Reliable statistics on how effective the agency is catching border crossers between legal points of entry are difficult to obtain. Committee members asked officials how they can know if technologies are effective since they don’t have reliable estimates of those who make it past the border.

Maril pointed out that the Border Patrol was recently recognized by the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization when it received its inaugural Golden Padlock Award.

“This honor acknowledges the dedication of government officials working tirelessly to keep vital information hidden from the public,” a statement on the organization’s website said.

A lack of transparency was a hallmark of the SBInet program, Maril said. Lawmakers and the press were taken on dog-and-pony shows, but kept at arm’s length to hide the systems’ shortcomings.

“Everything was OK, until it wasn’t,” he said. He is concerned that this may be the case again.

“It is hard for a member of the public or a researcher to make informed decisions if we are excluded from the information that would help us make those informed decisions,” he said.

CBP spokesman Michael Friel turned down a request for an interview about the new programs. Vendors contacted about the IFT downselect told National Defense they were under a “news blackout” imposed by CBP, and declined to talk about their technologies. Boeing, when it was the SBInet prime contractor, was under a similar order for a number of years.

“How are we going to know as the public that it was worth investing the hundreds of millions of dollars that they put into” the new programs? Maril asked.

Another transparency issue that came up repeatedly in GAO reports was a lack of clarity on the long-term costs of these programs.

Basham said that was something he repeatedly brought up with Congress as lawmakers mandated more agents, physical infrastructure and technology. If the nation wants to secure the southern border, it comes with a high price tag, he added.

“If we are going to do this, there has to be a long-term [funding] commitment,” he said.

The size of the Border Patrol doubled under his watch, and the Senate immigration reform bill passed in June calls for its numbers to double again. All those agents hired as GS-5s will one day be GS-12s, Basham noted. Personnel expenses can gobble up the agency’s budget, and the bill for operating, maintaining and updating fixed towers, and fencing may come due at the same time. Deploying technology in the rugged terrain found along the border is going to cost money.

“You can’t put down a number and walk away. … It has been proven that that is not a workable solution for the long term,” he said.

“Maintaining some of these fixed towers gets to be incredibly difficult,” he added.

Rebecca Gambler, director of homeland security and justice at the GAO, in testimony at the hearing, said reports show there is a lack of confidence in CBP’s 10-year lifecycle cost estimates for the programs.

A GAO report on the fixed-tower programs is due this fall, she added.

Topics: Homeland Security, Border Security, Science and Technology, Science and Engineering Technology, Homeland Security

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