Glitch Keeps High-Tech Border Fence Offline

Because of a software glitch, the first high-tech "virtual fence" on the nation's borders remains inoperable, three months after its scheduled debut.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he is withholding further payment to the prime contractor, Boeing Co., until the success of the pilot project stretching 28 miles near the border southwest of Tucson.

Nine 98-foot towers laden with radar, sensors and sophisticated cameras have been built in an area heavily trafficked by illegal immigrant and drug smugglers. The towers, each a few miles apart, are intended to deter or detect border crossers and potential terrorists and enhance the ability of Border Patrol agents to catch them.

More testing is expected by early October, Chertoff told the House Committee on Homeland Security this month in Washington.

"We are now looking to begin acceptance testing in about a month," Chertoff said — meaning the point at which contracting officials give the go-ahead for testing — "and we will then kick the tires again."

Of Chertoff's remarks, Boeing spokeswoman Deborah Bosick said only: "We're working with our customer to solve some remaining technical issues."

The virtual fence is the first stage of a plan to smother the Mexican and Canadian borders with 1,800 such towers, all aimed at enabling the U.S. Border Patrol to pinpoint crossings and improve their ability to intercept crossers.

About three-fourths of the $20 million cost for the 28-mile project has been paid, homeland security officials said. The fencing was announced as part of a $67 million initial contract awarded last September to Boeing, the bulk going to set up program management, systems engineering and planning support.

The virtual fence system is supposed to coordinate camera, sensor and radar sightings and provide a common operating picture to agents on the ground to intercept those entering the country illegally.

"The integration of all the systems into a common operating picture continues to be the challenge," said Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke. Boeing has put new people on the project who are working to resolve the problems, he said.

In June, with the towers up, a radar problem caused a brief delay. Then, federal officials said there was a software problem.

In his Sept. 5 testimony, Chertoff said the original plan was to begin acceptance testing in June "so that we could make a determination that we were satisfied with the product and take possession of it I think in July."

Acceptance testing is "a little bit like buying a car. We didn't want to get stuck with a lemon," Chertoff said.

The individual components worked well, but the system integration did not, he said.

Boeing has "retooled their team on the ground and replaced some of the managers. ... They are now working through the problems of system integration as we speak," Chertoff said. "I think they put their A-team in place to do it."

As for the testing, Chertoff added, "We should get it done well before the end of the year."