A Virtual Fence To Nowhere

My colleague Spencer Hsu wrote a compelling, troubling
news story
about Project 28, the moniker of one of those whiz-bang high-tech security projects we keep hearing about.

The lead of his story: It doesn't and apparently won't work as planned, at least for the time being.

"Technical problems discovered in a 28-mile pilot project in the desert south of Tucson prompted the change in plans, Department of Homeland Security officials and congressional auditors told a House subcommittee," Hsu wrote in a feat of grace and understatement.

The message from Government Inc.: No one should be surprised.

Over and over, the government has been sold projects, mondo multibillion-dollar projects, by its corporate partners that have not panned out. Far too often they have far exceeded cost "estimates" by said partners.

Some people, at least those billing the project as a whiz-bang high-tech solution, ought to be eating their sun visors for persisting in the face of the facts, logics and much else.

Boeing, the contractor for Project 28, billed it as a big-time solution. President Bush called it "the most technologically advanced border security initiative in American history." As Hsu put it: "The virtual fence was to be a key component of his proposed overhaul of U.S. immigration policies, which died last year in the Senate."

Almost exactly a year ago, the stalwart auditors at the Government Accountability Office said this about SBINet, the parent effort of Project 28:

"The SBInet expenditure plan, including related documentation and program officials' statements, lacked specificity on such things as planned activities and milestones, anticipated costs and staffing levels, and expected mission outcomes. This, coupled with the large cost and ambitious time frames, adds risk to the program. Without sufficient and reliable information on program goals, status and results, Congress and DHS are not in the best position to use the plan as a basis for assessing program outcomes, accounting for the use of current and future appropriations, and holding program managers accountable for achieving effective control of the border."

It gives me heartburn, and that's the benign stuff. As Hsu's story pointed out, the government "disclosed new troubles that will require a redesign and said the first phase will not be completed until near the end of the next president's first term."

So far, Boeing has been paid about $86 million.

By Robert O'Harrow |  February 29, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
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why does this happen over & over & over & over?????
who in control does NOT get it????
why as the tax payer base, do we have no voice representing what we REALLY think/want?????
why are the elected officials to represent the populace NOT doing it????
yeah, i hear it all the time: "just vote them out next term."
well, yeah, but what comes in is no better after a short time, they become as much deadwood as the elected outs.......
what has OUR society come to?
OUR society, as in ALL of us have forgotten valuable lessons over the years. look back in history & see the repeat of issues/failures/scandels/lying.....
what has happened to morals?
what has happened to the moral fabric of OUR society??????
why are so many people so lost anymore???

let's get it right moving forward.
yes, i am a christian, BUT here is the good part: i am not "preaching" about Christianity, i am "talking" about morals, period, right from wrong, good vs bad decisions, ramifications thereof choices made, period, ane of discussion.

think about it!

Posted by: lindsey in texas | February 29, 2008 8:02 AM

OK - so the $$ waste is one aspect - but is no one alarmed that a primary aerospace and leading military-industrial company apparently can't manage to build a surveillance technology that works? Kind of pricks the bubble of the US technical superiority myth.

Posted by: Technical Supremo? | February 29, 2008 9:18 AM

Bush does not want immigration enforcement. Yet he knows that the American public wants immigration enforcement. The solution: pretend to do something while ensuring that nothing is really done. Since Clinton ended immigration enforcement in 1994 this has been the policy of the federal government. That's why there are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in America. Every 6 months or so the ICE announces the deportation of 1000 illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, 500,000 more have arrived.

Posted by: skeptic | February 29, 2008 10:11 AM

why does boeing have to be paid when the problems are the results of its mistakes, faulty design, etc? aren't we due some sort of refund?

Posted by: frieda406 | February 29, 2008 10:33 AM

Actually, frieda406, the problem is that the design and implementation was rushed for political purposes. During the debate on legalizing illegal immigrants last year, the administration wanted to give the impression that they had a viable border enforcement option in place and so rushed the project. Politics trumps effectiveness. Business as usual. :-)

Posted by: skeptic | February 29, 2008 10:38 AM

There is a larger point here beyond the embarrassment of yet another government boondoggle.

The immigration debate has failed in part because we have not taken a realistic look at the enormous logistical and technical challenges behind controlling our borders. This project failed mostly because it is trying to do something incredibly complex and difficult. It ultimately is possible to build and operate virtual fencing, but it will take decades and will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Competent documentation and tracking of guests and citizens will also take major social and legal changes, and also will require the development of complex, expensive technology. Building the legal and enforcement capabilities to support these technologies is also an enormous challenge.

The bottom line is that even if America comes to the political conclusion that it is willing to control its borders, it will take an unprecedented commitment and decades to do anything substantive. We are less than one percent of the way towards having the capacity for competent border control. No politicians today have communicated a vision on how to get these things done and what it will take. It is easy to say you are for strong borders, but doing something constructive about it is another matter.

Posted by: td450 | February 29, 2008 10:40 AM

Is it likely part of this draining of the wealth is giving 'contracts' for limitless funds with no expected results was planned long ago?Is it likeley the dhs was planned as a tool to give these contracts for stealing to predesignated parties?Is it likely the invented evil is a distraction from the real evil.Don't forget the devil comes to steal kill and destroy.
What makes this mess outragous is trying to play with 6 jokers in the deck and they are all the same one.

Posted by: Johnsnottoodistracted | February 29, 2008 10:48 AM

SBInet was definitely rushed for political reasons. It also didn't help that Boeing was possibly the least experienced and least qualified of the bidders.

But DHS liked hearing how simple it would be (while the other bidders were explaining how complex it would be) so they went with Boeing.

The problem with going with the overly simple solution is that most of the time it doesn't work.

Posted by: Chris | February 29, 2008 11:03 AM

if this is real technology , and it does not work we bill the makers.it like every thing else in life ,we don't pay nothing until it works and fine the creators of said projects until they meet some type of bench marks. that should not be to hard to understand. no over run submission until at least half way thru the project.

Posted by: jimmy g | February 29, 2008 12:23 PM


Posted by: SAWARGOS | February 29, 2008 5:24 PM

What does it take to enforce accoutability? When you are building a home you don't pay the builder up front without expecting him to catch the first plane to Vegas with your money. There are logical steps and until they are met there is no payment expected. In the REAL world we pay for a product on delivery. How can our government do otherwise? And BECAUSE THEY DON'T HAVE TO is not an answer!

Posted by: Laura | February 29, 2008 7:00 PM

Nothing new. Same old Government mess. And it does not matter who becomes president, it will stay the same. It is all about the money. Even Mr. Obama had a front line lobbyist at the center stage of his rally in Dallas. The former mayor who lobbied for the utility company in DFW. was paid $300,000.00 for his dirty work for a company that has had more scandals than Congress. It just never ends. If I win the lottery, I move to New Zealand.

Posted by: Pete | February 29, 2008 9:13 PM

Pete's right; this isn't a Boeing issue or an immigration issue or a virtual fence tehcnology issue. The issue is systemic corruption in our legislative and executive branches, beholden to their supporters/contributors for their re-election.

The revolving door between those 2 branches of gov't and lobbying/think tank/private equity jobs has all but wiped out public service; there is just a handful of real old school public servants left.

Term limits are a must, to stop the now-constant running for the next election.

Tighter restrictions on government employees working as lobbyists must include much longer wait times for eligibility to work in the lobbying field.

Ethics reform can only be achieved if the reform/regulation power is taken away from the Congress & White House; you can't expect them to create regulations/standards/laws that punish themselves; they will never agree to term limits and private sector employment restrictions because this is their whole life's career path.

No more the citizen politician who serves and then goes home.

Professional politicians rule America, and they are beholden to citizens, they are not subject to being held accountable by citizens except under the most egregious illegalities.

Posted by: LALA | March 1, 2008 2:56 AM

I agree with those of you who see this contractor-govt. fusion as the real problem here, although of course the immigration debate is an important issue too. This may not seem related, but how 'bout this? Public financing of elected officials. . .coupled with an independent body drawing legislative districts. Think about it. .

Posted by: Henry | March 1, 2008 12:28 PM

I read elsewhere that Boeing is being paid $60 million for virtual fence software, whatever that is. This cannot possibly last more than 5 years.

And check out the photos of these "mobile remote sensing" trailers where Chertoff's guys pull around fragile things with wheels and high towers. Those can't possibly last more than 5 years.

Totally Un Believable.

Posted by: Mike Y | March 1, 2008 12:59 PM

Another attempt to employ inappropriate planning and control mechanisms. DHS has a long track record of wasting money chasing political imperatives with overly-simplified strategies. Remember the luggage scanners that had to be calibrated to not scan because they had to be installed by a date certain? The accountability overseers are complicit, as they insist upon detailed plans, budgets, and staffing projections for projects that are testing hypotheses, not merely assembling tinker toys. Not the uncertainty, but how we insist upon coping with it, is the deeper systemic difficulty.

Posted by: dschmaltz | March 1, 2008 1:16 PM

The big revolution in tunnel-building was not the invention of a new kind of tunnel per se, but rather of the modern tunnel-boring machine.

Similarly, we should spend $28 million developing a border-wall-erecting machine, not the wall itself.

Once the machine is done, just drive it along the border at 1 mile per day and the whole project is done in a few years.

Of course the true goal of DHS is mine for 100s of excuses on nearly every topic.

Posted by: Mike Y | March 1, 2008 4:36 PM

I can understand the frustrations that people have about how our corrupt Federal Government functioning without any demands for accountability being met. But here are some ideas:
1. Make a concerted effort to transform Mexico into a capatilists dream. A place where the Mexicans can finally obtain a living wage that equals that of the United States.
2. In some states it is legal to shoot trespassers if they enter the domain of your home uninvited. If they cross the border illegally, shoot em.
3. Peacefully make Mexico the 51st state of the union.

Posted by: James | March 3, 2008 10:33 AM

Wow,, lots of comments, many ideas or thoughts on this issue...

Like anything else we attempt in this country, it will never please everyone. Yep, the project cost a lot of money..what doesn't these days?

So here we are, many in this country don't even think keeping illegals out is good, many think we need a fence over the entire US/Mexico Border, and many think the fence is harsh, rude, expensive,,,you name it..

I wonder just how many of you, commenting here, have ever seen the US/Mexican Border. It is a long and in most places, harsh and difficult terrain to patrol using Agents in SUVs. So if eliminating Illegal Entry is the goal, then we have to accept something beyond what we have now....

Yes the virtual fence is and will be expensive to get it right and deployed, but it will save enormous effort in how we do this now...HOWEVER to expect some company to develop such a project using its own money, would mean no such projects would ever get done...No company can afford that on such a scale as this.

Posted by: HawkCW4 | March 6, 2008 1:03 PM

It does my heart good to hear all of you realizing our experiment didn't work. Now we need not to fix it, we need to cancel it. We don't need a fixed government, we need far less of it all around.

Posted by: Nothing new | March 10, 2008 9:03 AM

It's pretty amazing that politicians and others believe that a fence of any sort is the solution. Only a few decades ago, one of the most infamous fences designed with state of the art technology, was removed, the Berlin Wall. Why is our country, which celebrated that removal, so eager to build it's on version of the Berlin Wall.
No fence is needed along our boarder with Canada. In fact, Canadians are perfectly content where they are. However, until our neighbors to the south feel that they can obtain some sort of economic prosperity in their home countries, they will continue to search for it else where, no matter the fence.
Let's spend our money instead of building walls, building good neighbors. Ones who are economically and nationally secure.

Posted by: corlis | March 10, 2008 10:17 AM

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