Watching the Border: The Virtual Fence

Steve Kroft Reports on The High-Tech Project That Is Supposed to Secure The U.S.-Mexican Border

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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.