TUCSON - The government will replace its highly touted "virtual fence" on the Arizona-Mexico border with new towers, radars, cameras and computer software, scrapping the brand-new $20 million system because it doesn't work sufficiently, officials said.
The move comes just two months after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff officially accepted the completed fence from The Boeing Co. With the decision, Customs and Border Protection officials are acknowledging that the so-called Project 28 pilot program to detect illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border doesn't work well enough to keep or to continue tweaking.
Chertoff accepted the program on Feb. 22 after Boeing apparently resolved software glitches. But less than a week later, the Government Accountability Office told Congress it "did not fully meet user needs and the project's design will not be used as the basis for future" developments.
The project consists of nine towers along a 28-mile section of border straddling the border crossing at Sasabe, southwest of Tucson.
DHS will put in about 17 new towers, some holding just communications gear, others featuring new cameras or new radars, at an undetermined cost.
The department also is spending at least $45 million to have a customized computer program written so the collected data is more quickly and efficiently fed to Border Patrol agents.
Although the system is operating today, it hasn't come close to meeting the Border Patrol's goals, said Kelly Good, deputy director of the Secure Border Initiative program office in Washington.
"Probably not to the level that Border Patrol agents on the ground thought that they were going to get. So it didn't meet their expectations."
The Border Patrol had minimum input in designing the prototype but will have more say in the final version, officials said.
Agents began using the virtual fence last December, and the towers have resulted in more than 3,000 apprehensions since, said Greg Giddens, executive director of the SBI program office in Washington.
But that's just a fraction of the several hundred illegal immigrants believed to cross through the Sasabe corridor daily.
The towers, equipped with radars, optical and thermal imaging cameras and other sensors, are supposed to show nearby Border Patrol agents a complete picture of the border on the laptop computers in their patrol trucks. But the system's less-than-optimal results have been heavily criticized by politicians and others.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano's office hasn't been told of the plans, her press secretary said Tuesday. "It would have been nice of them to say anything to us," spokeswoman Jeanine L'Ecuyer said. "If there have been new plans made regarding the virtual fence, they have not shared that.
"We certainly hope they will, and we've made inquiries to that effect to find out what's going on."
The virtual fence is part of a national plan to use physical barriers and high-tech detection capabilities to secure the Mexican border - and ultimately the Canadian boundary too.
The new software Boeing is creating to provide agents a complete and rapid picture is considered the core of any new operating system. The contractor will use another $19 million for later upgrades.
That's a fraction of some $860 million the company has been awarded for technology, physical fences and vehicle barriers.
Boeing used off-the-shelf software and other equipment initially to get the system up and running quickly.
Project 28 was not intended to be the final, state-of-the-art system for catching illegal immigrants, Giddens said. "I think some people understood that and some didn't. We didn't communicate that well."
The problems with the system involved not just the computer software but the radar and satellite links used to send the information. All will be replaced with different types.
Groundbreaking for the permanent towers is expected in July, and locations will be moved for at least five of the current tower sites, Good said.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said it's encouraging that Boeing will do laboratory tests before the new equipment is deployed, "given the fact that Boeing has already botched it once."