TUCSON, Arizona – The government will replace its highly touted "virtual fence" on the Arizona-Mexico border with new towers, radars, cameras and computer software, scrapping the brand-new $20 million system because it doesn't work sufficiently, officials said.
The move comes just two months after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff officially accepted the completed fence from The Boeing Co.
With the decision, Customs and Border Protection officials are acknowledging that the pilot program to detect illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border doesn't work well enough to keep or to continue tweaking.
Chertoff accepted the program on Feb. 22 after Boeing apparently resolved software glitches. But less than a week later, the Government Accountability Office told Congress it "did not fully meet user needs and the project's design will not be used as the basis for future" developments.
The project is made up of nine towers along a 28-mile (45-kilometer) section of border straddling the border crossing at Sasabe, southwest of Tucson.
DHS will put in about 17 new towers, some holding just communications gear, others featuring new cameras or new radars, at an undetermined cost.
The department also is spending at least $45 million to have a customized computer program written so the collected data is more quickly and efficiently fed to Border Patrol agents.
Although the system is operating today, it hasn't come close to meeting the Border Patrol's goals, said Kelly Good, deputy director of the Secure Border Initiative program office in Washington.
"Probably not to the level that Border Patrol agents on the ground thought that they were going to get. So it didn't meet their expectations."
Agents began using the virtual fence last December, and the towers have resulted in more than 3,000 detentions since, said Greg Giddens, executive director of the SBI program office in Washington.
But that's just a fraction of the several hundred illegal immigrants believed to cross through the Sasabe corridor daily.
The towers, equipped with radars, optical and thermal imaging cameras and other sensors, are supposed to show nearby Border Patrol agents a complete picture of the border on the laptop computers in their patrol trucks. But the system's less-than-optimal results have been heavily criticized by politicians and others.
The virtual fence is part of a national plan to use physical barriers and high-tech detection capabilities to secure the Mexican border — and ultimately the Canadian boundary too.
Boeing used off-the-shelf software and other equipment initially to get the system up and running quickly.
"Boeing has delivered a system that the Border Patrol currently is operating 24 hours a day," Boeing spokeswoman Deborah Bosick said. She declined further immediate comment.
The pilot project was not intended to be the final, state-of-the-art system for catching illegal immigrants, Giddens said.
The problems with the system involved not just the computer software but the radar and satellite links used to send the information. All will be replaced with different types.