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Watching the Border: The Virtual Fence

Watching The Border 14:10

Terrorism and homeland security have been back in the news the past few weeks, and once again the focus has been on intelligence failures and airport security. But the easiest way for terrorists to get into the United States may well be across the nation's porous 2,000 mile border with Mexico. And it is no secret.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigations have revealed that hundreds of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and countries associated with terrorism have entered the country through Mexico, and according to a study done for the Border Patrol, around 90 percent of the people who try to get in that way eventually make it.

President Clinton built a wall to try and stop it, and President Bush tried to tackle the problem with technology, initiating an ambitious program he called a "virtual fence," that would allow the U.S. to visually monitor most of the border.

The bureaucrats at Homeland Security changed the name of the program to the "Secure Border Initiative Network" or SBInet, and after three years and a billion dollars, 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft decided to see how it was going.

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An 80-foot tower near Sasabe, Ariz. is just one of a network of electronic observation posts that dot the landscape along the Mexican border south of Tucson.

They're part of a system that the Department of Homeland Security intended to be the eyes and ears of the U.S. Border Patrol, scanning the Southern frontier for migrants, drug smugglers, and even international terrorists trying to enter the country illegally.

"These towers are located based on geography, terrain, and what the Border Patrol knows about typical traffic patterns. So these are placed because they're where we believe they're gonna be most effective," Mark Borkowski, the executive director of this huge technological undertaking for Homeland Security," told Kroft.

Each one of the observation towers is equipped with long range radar and high resolution cameras, and is connected to underground sensors. It was designed and built by Boeing, one of the nation's largest defense contractors; Borkowski himself is a rocket scientist who used to work for NASA.

"It's not rocket science. But it is still a complex, ambitious project, particularly the way it was originally designed, which was to cover the entire border with this technology," Borkowski told Kroft.

Asked why the United States needs this project, Borkowski said, "Well, we need it because we need to secure our borders. I think it's a national imperative that we want to secure our borders."

In principal it's not that much different from the security systems you might find in someone's home, office building, or the convenience store down the block - only on a much larger and more sophisticated scale.

The cameras and sensors on the towers are capable of picking up the slightest movements up to six or seven miles away, and shooting off an alert to a Border Patrol station, where an agent can then focus the cameras on the exact location. The visual information allows them to discern whether the intrusion is a threat that needs to be investigated or one that can be ignored.

"So in simple terms, what you want to do is you want to be able to look at the entire border with Mexico?" Kroft asked.

"Right. Where it's appropriate to look at the entire border, right," Borkowski replied.

"And then, if you see somebody crossing, you can dispatch Border Patrol people out to catch them?" Kroft asked.

"Correct," he replied. "We have a view of this person. We know if they're by themselves or with other people. We know if they're riding or not riding. We know if they're carrying things or not carrying things."

But unfortunately for Borkowski and the two people who had the job before him, it has proven to be much easier said than done.

When Boeing was awarded the initial contract back in 2006, it made some rather extravagant promises, claiming it could complete the project quickly and that virtually no one would be able to sneak across the border undetected.

Asked how this has worked out, Richard Stana, the director of homeland security issues for the Government Accountability Office, said, "Well, it hasn't worked out so far as well as they had hoped."

And that is putting the best possible face on it. One of Stana's jobs has been to investigate and monitor the project for Congress.

According to Stana, Boeing promised to complete the first 28 miles of the surveillance system in just eight months and wire the entire Mexican border in three years.

"In fact, this was supposed to be all deployed by now, by 2008-2009. The entire Southwest border was to be covered by SBI," Stana said.

But according to him that hasn't happened and that "we're still in the early stages."

In fact, after three years and a billion dollars, they are still fiddling with the first 28 miles, with 1,972 to go. And that is just one of the problems.

"You know, when Boeing first got the contract back in 2006, they made promises that they would be able to apprehend, at least detect and apprehend 95 percent, plus or minus five percent, of all the incursions," Stana told Kroft.

Asked if that has happened, Stana told Kroft, "No. They promised camera ranges of ten miles. They promised radar ranges without clutter."

But that didn't happen either, according to Stana.

And that's not all: the software had bugs, some of the equipment proved unreliable in the heat and high winds of the desert, components would break, and maintenance proved to be an issue.

According to the new project director, Mark Borkowski, part of the problem was that Boeing and his predecessors at Homeland Security thought they could get the job done with standard surveillance equipment.

"We were gonna go buy all this equipment that you can buy from vendors today. We call it off the shelf, commercial off the shelf," he told Kroft.

"Radio Shack?" Kroft asked.

"Not quite. But, you know, people sell radars, people sell cameras. So not far off of that. The idea was that should have been a very simple thing to do. You know, go put that on towers, plug it in together. It should work," Borkowski said.

The GAO's Richard Stana told Kroft, "The cameras and the radar, that's the blocking and tackling of the whole system. That's what detects and identifies what's on the screen."

Asked what some of the problems have been with the cameras and radar, Stana said, "Well, with the radar, they were very susceptible to weather. You know, if it was raining, it would train on raindrops. If the wind blew mesquite leaves around on a bush, it would train on that as activity. You really don't want that. You don't want agents out looking for bushes and raindrops."

But the biggest problem - and you may find this hard to fathom - was that no one at the Department of Homeland Security or the engineers at Boeing bothered to ask the people who would actually be using the surveillance system what they wanted or how they wanted the system to work.

"I'm just kind of amazed that they're building this, what's gonna be a multi-billion dollar system for the Border Patrol, and nobody asked the Border Patrol. What... they needed or wanted, or what would be helpful," Kroft remarked.

"What we didn't do was iterate with them and said, 'Okay. Well, we heard that you'd like to be able to see what's going on the border. How about a little of this?' How about . . . we didn't do that. And that should have happened," Borkowski replied.

Borkowski acknowledged it was a "huge mistake" and that currently he's responsible for it. "And we'll just leave it at that. That's my job now, to fix that."

One of the results was that the original plan called for Border Patrol agents to be connected to the electronic surveillance system with laptop computers that they would carry in their off-road vehicles.

But if anyone had bothered to ask the agents, they would have said that laptops are hard to operate bounding though the desert, that the dust would prove inhospitable to the equipment, and that the agents would be unable to get a signal over vast stretches of the desolate region.

It's a glitch that confounded even government auditors like Rich Stana.

"How does that happen, that you decide you're gonna build a billion dollar system, and then not talk to the people you're building it for?" Kroft asked.

"They really were in the mindset of, you know, pedal to the metal. They wanted to go full steam ahead with this virtual fence back in '05, '06, for whatever reason. So the kinds of things that you would expect to see in a large, multi-billion dollar program, you didn't see right away," Stana said.

"Isn't that one of the first questions you ask? Like, okay, what does the customer think? What does the client want?" Kroft asked.

"Well, you would think so. I mean, you don't want to build an Edsel," Stana said.

Asked if this project is like an Edsel, Stana told Kroft, "Don't know. You know, we'll have to wait and see. We're waiting for something that works."

Someone in the government must have decided it was an Edsel, because in June 2008, just a few months after the Border Patrol began using the virtual fence, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would begin phasing out the original system, which it now calls a prototype and replace it with a brand new one covering the same 28 miles.

"There are people in Congress that have called this first version a failure. Do you agree with that?" Kroft asked Mark Borkowski.

"I think that given what we communicated to Congress about the expectations, I don't think we met those expectations. So I would define that as a failure," he replied.

"And now you've got what some people have called a do-over," Kroft remarked.

"Some people have called it a do-over. The mistake we made was we - this prototype, which was a beta version, we told Congress, 'It's gonna work great. You're gonna love it. It's gonna lock down the border for you.' Shame on us. We should not have said that," Borkowski said.

Asked if the project was oversold to Congress, he told Kroft, "We certainly did."

"Have the taxpayers got anything yet for that money?" Kroft asked.

"Frankly, it's very frustrating to me to try to explain where that money went when it's kind of ethereal, because it's design and it's connections, and it's integration, and it's computer software. But you do start to see it when you start to see the construction of towers. And that's where we are now," Borkowski replied.

Asked if he's happy with Boeing's performance on this, Borkowski said, "Boeing's had a mixed record. They seem to be improving. I'm spending a lot of time with Boeing. I'm getting happier. I'm not yet happy."

Borkowski, who still has the patience and the optimism of a former NASA engineer, believes that great technological advances are often plagued by early failure.

Last August, he took 60 Minutes to a secure facility in Playas, New Mexico, for a firsthand look at the new system, which was still being tested.

Agents Chris Geoffrey and Jeff York led us through a simulation of its capabilities.

The radar and motion detectors have been improved, and it is easier for agents to immediately tell whether an alert is more likely to be a human intruder or rolling sagebrush.

And the cameras are better too.

"The infrared picture looks even clearer than the daylight camera," Kroft remarked.

"Often times it will be, yeah. You can see at this point, you can see real clear if they had weapons or large backpacks or something, I can see that very clearly," one of the agents replied.

But it was impossible to tell how well the new system will work, given that everybody involved in this exercise was either a government employee or a contractor, and it seemed to have been rehearsed the day before.

"We were out there. We saw a demonstration. They had some Border Patrol agents disguised as illegal aliens in white T-shirts, running around, trying to get through the system. It seemed like it sorta worked," Kroft told Richard Stana.

"Yeah, it sorta does. You know, the issue is, is in what weather does it work? In what heat does it work? In what distance does it work? And how reliable is it? Those are the things that really are the limiting factors," he replied.

Officially, the U.S. Border Patrol is behind the system, warts and all. Its chief, David Aguilar, claims even in its flawed state it has contributed to more than 5,000 arrests and the seizure of 15,000 pounds of marijuana since the 28-mile section went on line in 2008.

Aguilar told Kroft he "absolutely" thinks the system has made an impact.

"There are people [who] have studied and are involved with the system who disagree with your assessment on how well it's working," Kroft pointed out.

"Steve, as I said this is not a perfect system. We're not putting it forth as a perfect system," Aguilar replied. "It has got problems. We have got concerns with it. We are working to iron those out. But even as we are working to iron those out it is still giving us capabilities that we just did not have in the past."

"It's a great deal for Boeing and its subcontractors. It's a bad deal for the taxpayers," Wayne Cornelius, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, told Kroft.

There are some, like Cornelius, who think the virtual fence provides only the illusion of border security. He has studied and written about the border for years and says the only thing that has ever stopped people from illegally entering the United States from Mexico was the Great Depression.

"They will detour around the electronic fence just as they have detoured around sections of the physical fences that have been built since 1993. They would be crazy not to," Cornelius said.

He says smugglers are already probing the system for weaknesses, and will eventually figure out ways to sabotage or blind the electronic towers.

"One thing we've learned over the years is that the smugglers and terrorists and illegal immigrants can be quite imaginative in ways to subvert the system," Kroft told Borkowski. "And there are signs that that's already started, right?"

"Absolutely," Borkowski agreed.

"People talk about smugglers, setting up decoys," Kroft said.

"[The] chief of the Border Patrol's well aware of that. He's provided for that. He's planned for that. He continues to plan for it. So yes, we fully expect that people are gonna react to this. Does that mean we shouldn't do anything at all? No, we should make it harder for people to come across the border illegally. We should make it so that if they want to come across the border illegally, they have to really want to do it," Borkowski said.

"The bottom line to the whole program, Steve, is that, you know, here we are three years and hundreds of millions of dollars since SBI was first conceived of, and where are we? We're still waiting for something that works," Stana said.

And they will have to wait a while longer: Boeing, the main contractor, was scheduled to turn the new system over to Border Patrol this month, but this past week we were told it was being delayed for at least three more months.

We requested an interview with Boeing, but they deferred to the Department of Homeland Security. And on Friday, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, ordered a department-wide reassessment of the entire program.

Produced by Keith Sharman

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