Obstacles facing virtual Mexican border fence

A mobile observation tower manned by members of the Texas National Guard watches the for people illegally crossing from Mexico to the United States in the area known as La Valle along the Rio Grande near El Paso, Texas. This tower is part of the "virtual fence," made up of seismic and visual sensors, video cameras, radar and night vision optics.

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STEVE CHIOTAKIS: In 2006, Boeing won a contract to build a so-called "virtual fence" along the U.S.-Mexico border. Now the project is behind schedule. And way over budget.

Marketplace has learned that the Department of Homeland Security has granted Boeing a 30-day extension. The contract was supposed to expire today.

Marketplace's David Gura reports.


David Gura: The virtual fence, known as SBInet, was supposed to combine high-tech surveillance tools with more personnel, to prevent illegal border crossings.

Randy Hite reviewed the project for the Government Accountability Office. He says some big questions never got answered. Like, "How will SBInet work?" and "How much will it cost?"

Randy Hite: Well, if you don't define those kinds of things, it's hard to be held accountable for anything. Whatever you deliver, you're saying, well, this is what we intended to do.

As costs went up -- to more than a billion dollars -- Hite says the scale of the project got smaller and smaller.

Randy Hite: From initially, the northern and southern borders to the southwestern border, to just three sectors on the southwest border, to two sectors on the southwestern border, and eventually now to two locations within one sector on the southwest border.

Hite calls it "the incredible shrinking program."

Two issues that contributed to the reduction in scope were geography and equipment that didn't live up to its billing. Jayson Ahern oversaw the project while he was with Customs and Border Protection. Now he works in the private sector.

Jayson Ahern: You have mountains. You have desert. You have lack of communications in some of those areas. So being able to take some of this information and be able to remote it to a command center is a tough, tough challenge for any contractor to do.

The Government Accountability Office recommended the program be revised. Earlier this year, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called for an internal audit.

Boeing referred our request for an interview to the Department of Homeland Security. In a statement, it said, "Boeing stands behind its work on the SBInet system as a reliable, effective border security tool."

In its own statement, the Department of Homeland Security said it's currently reevaluating the program. And it expects to make an announcement about its fate soon.

In Washington, I'm David Gura for Marketplace.

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