Monday, September 28, 2009

Boeing's 'virtual fence' on Mexican border is full of holes, critics say

After 3 years and $500 million, Boeing getting a chance to fix glitchy border system

Tribune reporterAlong the boundary between Arizona and Mexico recently, Border Patrol agent Michael Scioli weaved his SUV through unforgiving rock formations and hills of desert brush. Illegal immigrants covertly were crossing the border nearby, but Scioli's agency doesn't always have the manpower to know exactly where.

Scioli then passed a 98-foot-tall tower fitted with cameras, a high-tech extra set of eyes that he and other agents presumably would welcome. "Don't have much to say about that," the agent said tersely.

The tower is part of a network of cameras and sensors rolled out with great fanfare by Chicago-based Boeing Co. three years ago but now is largely disowned by Border Patrol agents and lambasted by lawmakers and government watchdogs.

The so-called virtual fence, which has received $500 million from the Department of Homeland Security, should have been fully in place already in southern Arizona. Instead, the department scrapped the first attempt, which cost Boeing at least $40 million in overruns.

Now, Boeing is trying to revive the troubled project after the U.S. government gave the company a second chance this month.

Homeland Security officials say technology is a necessary tool to track not only illegal immigrants but also violent Mexican drug smugglers and even potential terrorist threats.

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