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Virtual Fence Gets a 'Do Over'

A newly constructed tower in the "virtual fence."

SASABE, Arizona -- After years of frustration, controversy and delay -- and some maddening technological glitches -- the first link in the federal government’s new $6.7 billion “virtual fence” is being erected here along the border.

We visited a newly constructed detection tower, out in the middle of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Contractors were still plugging in the off-the-shelf components. The concept is simple. The execution is not. A previous test of the virtual fence concept was so plagued with snafus that the Department of Homeland Security scrapped it and announced a “do over.”

“We created a set of expectations that were unreasonable, and unfortunately it didn’t work as well as we would have liked,” says Mark Borkowsky, director of the project in the Customs and Border Protection agency.

According to Borkowsk, this is the basic idea: In a 23-mile-long section of Arizona desert, the agency and its contractor, the Boeing Company, will erect a picket line of 17 towers -- nine towers will hold the detectors, eight will handle communications.

Atop each 80-foot-tall detection tower are a radar and two cameras -- one camera works with daylight and another detects heat signals at night. A nearby communications tower will send data back to a command center in Tucson.

Each radar will sweep back and forth 24/7, looking for movement in its viewshed. Borkowsky explains the radars are calibrated to detect over a distance of several miles an animated object 4 feet or taller moving at a walking pace or faster. When the radar pings on something intriguing, the cameras will zoom in to answer, Borkowsky hopes, the following questions: “Are you a cow, a car or a person? Are you on horse or on foot? Is it a group of persons? Are you carrying a backpack or are you carrying a weapon?”

What the cameras see will be viewed on a computer screen back in Tucson where an agent will analyze the image. If the agent at the computer concludes the cameras have identified a group of illegal migrants (versus a troop of Boy Scouts or a cowboy chasing cattle) a Border Patrol agent in the area will drive out to catch them.

Such networks of the tower-mounted motion and heat detectors have been used to thwart insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Borkowski says that the trick for the federal government is to find “the sweet spot” between expense and success.

“I can get more capability for more money or less capability for less money,” he says. “We’re not trying to buy the greatest most expensive technology available. We’re looking for the optimal mix.” Meaning: it might not be worth another billion dollars to detect every single undocumented immigrant in the bushes.

The 17 towers of the so-called Tucson-1 section are to be followed by another 30 miles of towers located south of Ajo, Arizona. The project costs around $50 million. If the virtual fence works, it could be deployed, as envisioned, along the entire southern border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. That is a lot of 80-foot towers, one every few miles. That will certainly change the view.

By William Booth and Travis Fox  |  June 24, 2009; 5:11 PM ET
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Since we can see up people's nostrils with our satellites, the whole lie of a virtual fence increasing prtection for a pourous border is nonsense.
Place an actual fence to deter the traffic, and to give agents a chance to get there.

The terrain is no good for captures, so the virtual fence is a waste...a complete waste.

Posted by: dottydo | June 24, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Rarely does the media explain the reasons for a "virtual" as opposed to an actual fence in the Arizona desert. It is largely environmental and political. These remote areas are ancient wildlife corridors as well as part of the ancestral homeland of native American populations who were there long before there was a border, a Mexico or a United States and who object, today, to being physically separated from friends, relatives and fellow tribal members. I personally am a strong supporter (moral and financial) of the renaissance of El Tigre, the jaguar, which is now occasionally being seen in southern Arizona as it extends its range from northern Mexico. A "real" fence would stop this--a "virtual" fence allows it.

On the other hand, we all understand that a "virtual" fence is inevitably a bit less effective than the most effective "real" barriers that could be built and that allows it to garner support from those who don't actually support strong border control. I do and just hope people are not dissuaded from supporting the virtual fence by those support it for the wrong reasons. There are right reasons to support it too.

Posted by: BTinSF | June 24, 2009 7:44 PM | Report abuse

It is an outrage we are still building a fence on the border, while our crops are rotting in the field from lack of farm workers. Mexico is one of the largest importers of American made products.

Mexico is making it safe for American tourists and businesses. I interviewed a Mexican soldier of a platoon of soldiers today who was guarding a Mexican Wal-Mart when the armored car picked up American profits. Sometimes we make lousy neighbors.

Posted by: alance | June 24, 2009 9:23 PM | Report abuse

It's obtrusive to this wild natural landscape but preferable to a fixed fence and it shouldn't impede the Jaguar's hunting grounds.

Posted by: Fox2step | June 24, 2009 10:17 PM | Report abuse

The "fence" along the US Mexico border is another example of the stupidity of the American people. Why Americans would allow their government to build this expensive, useless fence is beyond me. Its like other expensive projects that the American people have allowed to proceed. The useless and tragic wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The useless "War on Drugs".
It is not difficult to determine why the standard of living and the quality of life in the US is going down faster than the international reputation of the US for support of human rights.
As an American I am embarrassed. Before some "Yahoo" tells me to "Love it or Leave It" I want to mention that I left the US in 2005 to find a better place to live. There are lots of better places. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway,Finland, Denmark,Sweden, Germany, Switzerland to mention a few.. At one time the US was the best country to live in. Now it doesn't even make the top 50.

Posted by: jimeglrd8 | June 24, 2009 10:52 PM | Report abuse

What would stop a cartel from simply destroying one of these towers? Take the war to the United States. They have unlimited funding (practically) while the U.S. Government has plenty of other issues to worry about instead of a bunch of radar towers in the American Southwest.

Posted by: baltimoredude | June 25, 2009 8:56 AM | Report abuse

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