Costly virtual border fence in tatters | The U.S. is set to defund the troubled project. It was intended to keep a high-tech eye on the Mexican border

Los Angeles

Reporting from Washington —

A mobile observation tower manned by members of the Texas National Guard watches illegal immigrants in the area known as La Valle along the Rio Grande. (Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images / June 25, 2007)

The Department of Homeland Security, positioning itself to cut its losses on a so-called invisible fence along the U.S.- Mexico border, has decided not to exercise a one-year option for Boeing to continue work on the troubled multibillion-dollar project involving high-tech cameras, radar and vibration sensors.

The result, after an investment of more than $1 billion, may be a system with only 53 miles of unreliable coverage along the nearly 2,000-mile border.

The virtual fence was intended to link advanced monitoring technologies to command centers for Border Patrol to identify and thwart human trafficking and drug smuggling. But from the beginning, the program has been plagued by missed deadlines and the limitations of existing electronics in rugged, unpredictable wilderness where high winds and a tumbleweed can be enough to trigger an alarm.

Homeland Security officials decided on Sept. 21 not to invoke the department’s option with Boeing, the principle contractor on the project, and instead extended the deal only to mid-November, Boeing officials confirmed this week. Boeing has charged the department more than $850 million since the project began in 2006.

The government has not released an independent assessment of the program completed in July, but with the two-month Boeing extension about to run out, several members of Congress expect the Homeland Security Department to rule soon on the fate of the invisible fence, the high-tech portion of the $4.4-billion Secure Border Initiative.

Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler would only say that a new way forward for the program “is expected shortly.”

But given that the virtual fence has yet to pass muster even in the 53-mile test area — two sections in Arizona that officials acknowledge won’t be fully operational until 2013 — and the government’s lack of interest in extending Boeing’s contract, most do not expect the department to invest billions more in a project that has continually disappointed.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he hoped Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano would act soon. “The program is headed in the wrong direction,” Thompson said.

“It would be a great shame to scrap SBInet,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R- Texas), who has encouraged the department to bring to the Southwest the technology the U.S. military is using on the Afghanistan- Pakistan border. “Technology is key to solving these border issues.”

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau

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