Democrats do U-turn on wall of tech­nol­ogy

Bush ‘vir­tual fence’ killed by Obama

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY S.A. MILLER

The Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity spent seven years and more than $1 bil­lion try­ing to cre­ate a wall of tech­nol­ogy at the bor­der — or, as Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush called it, a “vir­tual fence.” It was a bust.

Now the idea has re­turned as the main ante for con­gres­sional Democrats in the bor­der se­cu­rity spend­ing fight. Op­posed to Pres­i­dent Trump’s phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers, they say drones, sen­sors and other elec­tron­ics are all the tools needed — a “tech­no­log­i­cal wall,” in the words of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2011 pulled the plug on the Bush-era Se­cure Bor­der Ini­tia­tive Net­work, or SBINet, which was en­vi­sioned as an in­te­grated sys­tem of radar, sen­sors and video cam­eras along the en­tire U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der.

Democrats at the time cheered the de­ci­sion to can­cel the con­tract with Boe­ing for the long-trou­bled pro­gram.

Rep. Ben­nie G. Thomp­son, a Mis­sis­sippi Demo­crat who was the rank­ing mem­ber of the House Home­land Se­cu­rity Com­mit­tee, called SBINet a “grave and ex­pen­sive dis­ap­point­ment” for squan­der­ing a lit­tle more than $1 bil­lion to achieve just 53 miles of cov­er­age on the bor­der in Ari­zona.

Mr. Thomp­son, who now chairs the com­mit­tee, said last week that he is ready to try again rather than spend on Mr. Trump’s cor­ru­gated steel fence.

“I have been en­gag­ing the tech com­mu­nity. They are telling me that they are

de­vel­op­ing mod­ern tech­nol­ogy that will help us iden­tify those vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. I would like for us to go in that di­rec­tion,” he said on “PBS NewsHour.”

He said U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion al­ready have high-tech sen­sors that just need to be used in a bet­ter way.

The Washington Times asked Mr. Thomp­son’s of­fice what had changed since 2011 and whether he fully backed Mrs. Pelosi’s “tech­no­log­i­cal wall.”

“He does sup­port proven and ef­fec­tive tech­nol­ogy to be used at the bor­der where ap­pro­pri­ate. SBINet sim­ply did not work, was not de­ployed cor­rectly and was overly am­bi­tious,” said Thomp­son spokesman Adam Comes.

The bor­der se­cu­rity de­bate and Mr. Trump’s de­mand for $5.7 bil­lion for a bor­der fence are at the heart of the stand­off be­tween the White House and Democrats that has kept the gov­ern­ment par­tially shut down for more than three weeks.

Bor­der se­cu­rity an­a­lysts agree that the tech­nol­ogy has im­proved by leaps and bounds since 2011, but they dis­agree on whether sen­sors and re­mote imag­ing can sub­sti­tute for phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers.

Jay F. Nu­na­maker Jr., di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Cen­ter for Bor­der Se­cu­rity and Im­mi­gra­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Ari­zona, had no doubt that tech­nol­ogy could re­place walls and fences.

“The com­bi­na­tion of all the cam­eras, night vi­sion cam­eras, you could see peo­ple walk­ing through marshes and streams like it was bright day­light,” he said, re­call­ing a 2013 visit to a bor­der se­cu­rity com­mand cen­ter set up at Dav­isMon­than Air Force Base in Tuc­son.

“Tech­nol­ogy has only im­proved since then,” he said.

Na­tional se­cu­rity scholar James R. Phelps, co-au­thor of the 2014 book “Bor­der Se­cu­rity,” said the ques­tion isn’t whether the tech­nol­ogy works in de­tect­ing bor­der jumpers — it does.

“The ques­tion then be­comes, ‘Do they ac­tu­ally stop any­body?’ The an­swer to that is no,” he said. “It is def­i­nitely not a sub­sti­tute. It works in con­junc­tion with phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers.”

A big dif­fer­ence be­tween sen­sors and fences, he said, is where Bor­der Pa­trol agents ap­pre­hend smug­glers or il­le­gal im­mi­grants. The high-tech sen­sors and video cam­eras don’t pre­vent or ham­per il­le­gal bor­der cross­ings.

“Once they are on U.S. soil, in­side the United States of Amer­ica, you now have to go through all the le­gal pro­cesses and ad­min­is­tra­tive pro­cesses,” said Mr. Phelps. “You have to de­ter­mine if they are here legally or il­le­gally, col­lect the bio­met­rics to put through the crim­i­nal check sys­tems, de­tain them or ar­rest them, set them up for a de­por­ta­tion hear­ing, put them in front of a judge, po­ten­tially house them, treat them med­i­cally. The list goes on and on and on — with all the ex­penses as­so­ci­ated with that per­son once they set foot in the United States.”

The sce­nario also de­pends on Bor­der Pa­trol agents ap­pre­hend­ing bor­der jumpers af­ter they ap­pear on video screens.

“It does no good to de­tect il­le­gal cross­ings un­less some­one is avail­able to track them down, and fairly quickly, be­fore the crossers dis­ap­pear into the many pri­vate homes, farms, busi­nesses, ve­hi­cles and nat­u­ral hid­ing places that are in the bor­der ar­eas, of­ten very close to the bor­der,” said Jes­sica M. Vaughan, di­rec­tor of pol­icy stud­ies at the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies. “Tech­nol­ogy by it­self does not pre­vent any­one from cross­ing the way a real wall or fence does.”

Ms. Vaughan said the de­bate over tech­nol­ogy ver­sus walls is lit­tle more than a pre­text for par­ti­san pos­tur­ing.

“The truth is, the Democrats don’t ap­pear to want real bor­der se­cu­rity, just to thwart Trump’s ini­tia­tives, which are what the ca­reer of­fi­cials and the Bor­der Pa­trol agents them­selves are ask­ing for — and they should know since they deal with this prob­lem ev­ery day,” she said.

The aban­doned SBINet project did help pro­duce ad­vanced radar, sen­sor and imag­ing equip­ment that the Bor­der Pa­trol is us­ing, al­though not as an in­te­grated sys­tem across the en­tire 2,000mile south­ern bor­der.

As of Oc­to­ber 2017, the most re­cent Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice data avail­able, Bor­der Pa­trol had com­pleted the planned de­ploy­ment of se­lect tech­nolo­gies to Ari­zona, Texas, Cal­i­for­nia and New Mex­ico. The tech­nol­ogy in­cluded re­mote video sur­veil­lance sys­tems, mo­bile sur­veil­lance ca­pa­bil­ity sys­tems and 15 of 53 planned in­te­grated fixed tower sys­tems that use radar, cam­eras and night vi­sion and cor­re­late sen­sor in­for­ma­tion to pro­vide a sin­gle op­er­at­ing pic­ture.

How­ever, the GAO re­ported that ef­fec­tive­ness of the high-tech gad­gets in ap­pre­hend­ing smug­glers and il­le­gal im­mi­grants could not be as­sessed be­cause of Bor­der Pa­trol re­port­ing er­rors.

In once case, Bor­der Pa­trol sta­tions in the Rio Grande Val­ley sec­tor recorded as­sists from in­te­grated fixed tower sys­tems in about 500 op­er­a­tions from June through De­cem­ber 2016. How­ever, the sec­tor did not have the sys­tems, ac­cord­ing to a GAO re­port.


Democrats cheered when the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ended a se­cu­rity ini­tia­tive en­vi­sioned as a sys­tem of radar, sen­sors and video cam­eras along the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der.

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