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‘Virtual Fence’ Losing Its Constituencies in Wake of GAO Report Wednesday, March 19, 2008 9:47:08 AM

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CQ HOMELAND SECURITY March 18, 2008 – 7:51 p.m. ‘Virtual Fence’ Losing Its Constituencies in Wake of GAO Report By Caitlin Webber, CQ Staff The future of the technological component of the Secure Border Initiative could be in doubt as the “virtual fence” loses support among those who have been the strongest backers of tough measures to secure the border. Never popular among interest groups and members of Congress opposed to getting tough on illegal immigration, the combination of radar, cameras and electronic sensors envisioned for portions of the U.S.-Mexican border is now also coming under fire from their ideological opposites. The latest controversy was fueled by a Government Accountability Office report on Project 28, a Boeingcontracted project to conduct surveillance on 28 miles of the Arizona border, which cited technical and management problems that would delay the project. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff took exception to some of GAO’s conclusions, but he is increasingly on an island in defense of SBINet, the overall virtual fence program of which Project 28 is a pilot. When Chertoff and Bush leave office next January, it’s possible their vision of electronic surveillance technology on the border will go with them. “According to the GAO, the virtual border fence is virtually useless and an actual waste of money,” said Ira Mehlman, national media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-illegal immigration advocacy organization which backs a stronger presence at the border. “Chertoff has a stake in this. It looks bad if they’ve contracted with Boeing and they botched the job,” Mehlman said. “Absent any compelling information to the contrary, you have to go with GAO.” Chertoff spent considerable time and effort trying to provide such information, including a couple of postings on his official departmental blog here and here. At a March 5 House Judiciary Committee hearing, Chertoff argued that project-specific reports should not be used to evaluate the entire Secure Border Initiative. “Project 28 is to SBI what a single cruiser is to the U.S. Navy,” he said. But appropriators who have been enthusiastic about border security over the past few years are beginning to voice skepticism about the efficacy of the virtual fence. “I’ve learned not to feel confident about anything the department tells me,” said Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee. “The department has said they have corrected the problems they encountered. Whether or not we condition funding based on those problems remains to be seen.” The subcommittee chairman, David E. Price of North Carolina, was just as circumspect. “Anytime you have a set-back like this, at least in the short term, we’re going to be more skeptical and ask more questions about the next stages,” Price said. House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who is not an appropriator but is in a


position to drive policy, said the GAO report did not dispel long-standing doubts about a virtual fence. “It didn’t allay our concerns about procurement. It didn’t allay any fears about whether or not we got our money’s worth. It didn’t allay our fears as to whether or not it actually works,” he said. Thompson said many in Congress have balked at DHS’s estimated $7.6 billion price tag. “There is reluctance on the part of many members to put this kind of money behind a yet-to-be proven technology,” he said. Price also pointed out that the experience with Project 28 might reveal more basic concerns than simply weak oversight and incompatible technology. “There obviously are problems with the execution of the concept, but perhaps also with the original concept,” Price said. Rosemary Jenks, director of governmental relations at NumbersUSA, a group that promotes reduced immigration, both legal and illegal, said the concept of a virtual fence isn’t necessarily bad, but it could work only in conjunction with other border security enforcement measures. “Some folks in the administration see this as a panacea. It is not,” said Jenks She also questioned whether a virtual fence makes fiscal sense. “It’s hard to believe that the technology required would be less expensive” than a physical fence, Jenks said. “A virtual fence is going to require a constant infusion of funding and manpower. You can’t just set it up and leave it alone.” Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a leading tough-onimmigration group, said, “They can at least say they’re doing something; they’re building a fence. It’s not that it’s necessarily a bad idea, but it’s more of a gimmick as it plays out politically.” Caitlin Webber can be reached at cwebber@cq.com. Source: CQ Homeland Security