The Virtual Fence Fiasco

Uncle Sam should ask for his $720 million back
by Published on

I wasn’t surprised to hear this morning on NPR that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had pulled the plug on Boeing’s  $720 million “virtual fence” experiment, known as SBInet.

Napolitano announced her decision Tuesday with some sharp words: “The system of sensors and cameras along the Southwest border known as SBInet has been plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines.”

Napolitano was wise to shelve expansion of the program in anticipation, no doubt, of the tongue lashing her agency will receive Thursday from congressional members in the House Homeland Security Committee. Tomorrow, committee members will have in their hands a report on the virtual fence from the Government Accountability Office. The results are not pretty, folks.

The New York Times which received the report in advance says that DHS and Boeing still can’t prove the technology works: “The department and Boeing have not designed tests well enough to assess the program. In some cases, the tests appeared designed to achieve positive results instead of evaluate the system.”

The question is how many more millions will taxpayers part with, before DHS takes the project away from Boeing? This will be the 14th GAO report released since 2006 criticizing Boeing’s mismanagement. The New York Times summed up the virtual fence as “over promised and under-delivered.”

According to Boeing’s original timeline, we were supposed to have 2,000 miles of virtual fence by now. Instead we’ve got $720 million down the rabbit hole and a projected 53-miles of virtual fence in Arizona with patchy results.

The network of cameras, ground sensors and radar mistakes desert brush for illegal border crossers when its windy. When it rains the radar doesn’t work.

The entire project was doomed from the start. Boeing never consulted with the Border Patrol agents who would be using the technology. They also tried to throw something together from off-the-shelf components.  And as I documented back in 2008, the SBInet office was mostly staffed with employees of Boeing and other private contractors who were left to oversee their own project.

In her statement yesterday, Napolitano said she’ll direct $50 million of the stimulus money earmarked for the virtual fence to buy other technological gadgets for border security including thermal imaging devices, laptops and radios.

It’s a shame that the virtual fence has been such a black hole for taxpayers. When it comes down to it, border residents would much prefer a “virtual fence” to an 18-foot steel and concrete monstrosity in their backyard.  If Boeing can build a satellite, it should be able to construct a virtual fence.

How many Americans get to screw something up for four years and still keep their job?

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.