Sunday, June 2, 2013



Note: As always the case, technology can be only part of the
solution. It can be misapplied, inadequate, located in wrong places,
intermittent, defeated by either natural or manmade events, including
by inept, poor or corrupt management.

Border technology remains flawed
$106 billion has been spent on border security over the past 5 years

The shadow of an engineer at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., is reflected in
the lens of an MQ-1 Predator drone being prepared for a night-flight
over the U.S.-Mexico border.
PHOTO BY: Nick Oza/The Arizona Republic JUMP TO OF 10

This story is part of The Arizona Republic's ongoing examination of a
bipartisan effort to reform the nation's immigration laws.

For this report, Republic border reporter Bob Ortega analyzed
documents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Customs
and Border Protection, including congressional budget requests and
prepared testimony for congressional hearings, and dozens of other
agencies and public-policy groups. He interviewed CBP and Border
Patrol employees; their comments were for background only and not for
publication. DHS declined to comment.

Previous installments have examined other aspects of border security,
the reform bill and how immigration laws are dividing a family.
Border tech: Pros, cons and cost

By Bob Ortega
The Republic |
Sun Jun 2, 2013 1:09 AM

TUCSON - A long, sharp, high-pitched beep sounds every 30 or 40
seconds at the Border Patrol's windowless sector-control room.

Agents here monitor a vast array of video screens and sensors linked
to cameras, radar and other surveillance equipment along 262 miles of
the Arizona-Mexico border — including hundreds of ground sensors that
beep loudly whenever one detects something.

That something might be a drug smuggler or a migrant — but far, far
more often, it's a cow, or the wind, or some other false alarm, which
may be why the agents seem to pay these constant beeps little mind.

To complement the 651 miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexican
border, Customs and Border Protection deploys drones, tethered radar
blimps, P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft, thermal-imaging devices,
towers with day and night video cameras, ground surveillance radar
and much more.

But, as the ceaseless beeping of the sensor alarms illustrates, many
pieces of that technology are flawed: Some produce frequent false
alarms, some suffer detection failures or leave gaps in coverage.
Then, too, CBP — despite spending more than $106 billion over the
past five years militarizing and securing the border — struggles to
mesh these pieces smoothly together so it can make good use of the
data they provide.

The flaws, the gaps and the challenges in analyzing the data have
left CBP, of which the Border Patrol is a part, unable to answer such
seemingly basic questions as how well all of this technology works
and how many of the people and how much of the drugs coming across
the border make it through.

Many border-security analysts see that lack of answers as
problematic, given current plans in Congress.

The comprehensive immigration-reform bill being debated in the Senate
would boost border-security spending by as much as $6.5 billion over
the next five years. That would roughly quadruple the more than $2
billion in Customs and Border Protection's existing budget plans for
more technology and to fix what's in place.

In a nutshell, the bill would require the Border Patrol to build more
fencing, more stations and more remote "forward-operating bases" near
the border; to increase surveillance to cover the entire border 24
hours a day, seven days a week; to deploy more planes, helicopters
and drones; to increase horse patrols; and to improve radio equipment
and communication with other federal, state and local law enforcement.

The bill also mandates hiring another 3,500 CBP officers (who work at
ports of entry, versus Border Patrol agents, who work the rest of the
border), a 16-percent increase, among other provisions. And it would
require the Border Patrol to apprehend or turn back 90 percent of
would-be border crossers.

Within Congress, tighter border security has been treated as a
precondition for any reform of immigration policy, but many analysts
and academics who study the border express doubts about the need for
more fences, agents and surveillance.

The number of Border Patrol agents nearly doubled over the last seven
fiscal years, to 21,394. But over that time period, the number of
migrants heading north plunged — mostly because of the U.S. economic
downturn, most analysts say, but also in part because of the
increasing dangers of going north as more fences and surveillance
pushed crossers into more remote areas. Border Patrol apprehensions
fell 69 percent over those years, from nearly 1.2 million to fewer
than 365,000.

In 2005, Border Patrol agents apprehended an average of 106 people a
year apiece. Last year, each agent apprehended an average of 17
people, or about one person every three weeks. In the Tucson Sector,
each agent averaged 28 apprehensions a year, or about one every 13
days. In Yuma, each agent averaged one every two months. In the El
Paso Sector, the least busy, each agent averaged 3.5 apprehensions a

"On a lot of parts of the border, it's gotten to the point that every
person we put out there makes less and less of an additional
difference," said Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin
American program at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-
based think tank that seeks to connect academic research to public-
policy discussion.

Complicating this picture is the fact that over the six months ending
in March, Border Patrol apprehensions along the Southwest border
climbed 13 percent from a year earlier, to just over 189,000. Most of
that increase is happening in Texas' Rio Grande Valley. Even with
this rebound, apprehension numbers over that period are still the
third lowest since 1972, above only last year and the year before.

Looking at the current state of border security, most analysts agree
on some needs — such as improving radio communications — but some say
CBP really should focus on what it has in hand.

"It's not just putting a surveillance camera somewhere and you're
done; the challenge is integrating the data into Border Patrol
operations. ... The Department of Homeland Security (which includes
CBP) needs to step back ... and integrate the technology they have
now before they get any new technology," said James Lewis, director
of the technology and public-policy program at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies, a conservative D.C. foreign-
policy think tank focused on political, economic and security issues.

Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations,
said what is "really needed is a serious management effort to see
what works and what doesn't." The lack of such an assessment "is at
some level an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars, given that we
spend $18 billion a year on immigration enforcement," added Alden,
one of the authors of a recent study on the effectiveness of border

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, one of the "Gang of Eight" promoting
immigration reform in Washington along with Arizona's other
Republican senator, John McCain, said Saturday that the issues of
added border security and technology snafus have been thoroughly

"We believe the situation clearly is better on the border than in
times past; the frustration with all of us is with conflicting
information out of DHS. Within the same report, they'll use increased
apprehensions to signal success, and decreased apprehensions to
signal success," Flake said.

"We haven't had a comprehensive plan by the Border Patrol to reach
certain metrics of effectiveness. We did come to the conclusion that
more barriers in certain places, more manpower where they need it and
more technology would help ... but in combination with employer
enforcement, and a legal framework for people to come in."

The Republic made several requests to interview Mark Borkowski, the
CPB's assistant commissioner in charge of technology and acquisition.
DHS and CPB did not make him or other agency officials available.

Faulty ground sensors

The ground sensors offer one example of the challenge of making sure
technology works properly. About 13,400 have been deployed piecemeal
along the border over several decades. They are typically placed
along known or suspected migrant or smuggler routes, and may detect
vibrations (for foot traffic), metal (for vehicles) or have acoustic
or infrared sensors. Sensors from the Vietnam War era remain in use.

A possible false alarm from a ground sensor, and faulty radio
communications, may have contributed to the death of Border Patrol
Agent Nicholas Ivie in a friendly-fire incident Oct. 2. As is often
the case with sensor alarms, agents didn't detect anyone but each
other when they arrived. Ivie, responding separately, apparently
mistook the other agents for smugglers and opened fire. One of the
agents shot and killed him.

But false alarms are nothing new.

In 2005, Homeland Security's inspector general reported that only 4
percent of the alarm signals detected migrants or smugglers (34
percent were confirmed false alarms, 62 percent couldn't be
determined). The sensors, which run on batteries, frequently fail
because of corrosion or bugs eating through wires.

They were supposed to be replaced as part of the $1.1 billion Secure
Border Initiative, a massive 2006 effort to boost security at the
border. But most of the money was spent on a problematic network of
high-tech towers, known as SBInet.

The towers, to be equipped with video and infrared cameras and radar,
were to cover the whole border. By the time Homeland Security pulled
the plug in 2010, after a host of problems, the contractor, Boeing,
had completed only 15 towers covering a 72-mile stretch of Arizona's
border. Most of the old ground sensors — with their false-alarm
problems — remained.

In January 2011, Homeland Security launched another initiative, the
Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan.

That plan called for spending $1.5 billion over 10 years to integrate
the SBInet towers, build new camera towers, buy trucks loaded with
surveillance gear — and replace 525 ground sensors in Arizona with
more sophisticated military models. The military sensors use a
combination of technologies that can distinguish more accurately
between, say, a four-legged coyote and the two-legged kind, and can
even detect the direction of travel.

But CBP confirmed this past week that — eight years after the
problems were identified — the sensors still had not been replaced.

However, under the new technology plan, Arizona agents have received:

Twenty-three hand-held thermal-imaging devices (like night-vision

Two "scope trucks" – modified Ford 150 4x4 trucks with day and night
cameras mounted on retractable poles.

Twelve "agent portable surveillance systems," which include radar,
video and infrared video sensors and can be carried in a box and set
up on tripods.

Drone problems

Drones, too, have proven problematic. So far, CBP has acquired 10
drones, all versions of the Predator B made by General Atomics, for
about $18 million apiece. CBP's unarmed drones carry radar, video and
infrared sensors.

Theoretically, the drones can fly for up to 20 hours at a time. But
last year, according to CBP, the drones flew an average of 94 minutes
a day. The main problem: CBP spent so much of its budget buying the
drones that it hadn't set aside enough to operate them.

"They're on the ground most of the time for lack of funding," said
Adam Isacson, a regional security-policy analyst for the Washington
Office on Latin America, a human-rights organization that studies the
effects of U.S. policies on Latin America. "They cost $3,234 an hour
to operate. They haven't had the budget for maintenance or crews."

Last year, Homeland Security's inspector general found that, because
of poor planning, CBP not only flew the drones less than one-third
the number of planned hours in 2011, but also had to use $25 million
from other budgets pay for the hours the drones did fly.

CBP also didn't have enough operational support equipment at the
airfields where the drones are based, and didn't prioritize missions
effectively, the inspector general found — all findings with which
CBP concurred. Flight hours last year rose 30 percent from the year
before, to 5,700, but were still well below half the target hours.
Budget cuts this year because of the congressional sequester are
likely to further limit flight hours, Isacson said.

The drones are sensitive to high winds and thunderstorms. They face
Federal Aviation Administration flight restrictions because they are
less able than manned aircraft to detect other aircraft and avoid
collisions. And their use raises privacy concerns.

At a Senate hearing in March, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., cited reports
that "DHS has customized its drone fleet to carry out domestic
surveillance missions such as identifying civilians carrying
guns ..." that fly in the face of civil liberties. "We must ask
whether the trade-off in terms of border security is worth the
privacy sacrifice."

But CBP officials have said they believe FAA concerns and other
issues can be addressed, and that drones can help increase
surveillance wherever it's most needed.

More coordination

In practice, every piece of technology at the border has limitations:

Eight aerostats, or tethered radar blimps, that CBP is taking over
from the military, can't be flown in high winds, and the line-of-
sight radar makes them less effective in rugged, mountainous areas,
which is much of the Tucson Sector. In May 2011, an aerostat crashed
in a Sierra Vista neighborhood after coming loose in 50-mile-an-hour
wind gusts.

CBP limits the use of its 16 Blackhawk helicopters because the high
rate at which they guzzle fuel makes them very expensive to operate,
according to pilots; and CBP budget documents confirm plans to
temporarily ground nine of the 16 Blackhawks next year pending enough
money for renovations.

The 16 workhorse P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft are, on average, 42
years old. Refurbishing costs $28 million apiece.

But the bigger issue is a lack of coordination in fitting all of the
pieces together and making effective use of the data they provide,
said Rick Van Schoik, director of the North American Center for
Transborder Studies at Arizona State University in Phoenix. "It's
still hard for CBP to figure out what we get out of all these
billions that have been spent," he said, which hampers planning for
the future.

Others argue that focus now should be on the ports of entry rather
than on the vast spaces between them.

By some estimates, as many as 40 percent of undocumented migrants are
people who entered legally through ports of entry and overstayed
their visas, said Eric Olson, at the Wilson Center. And, according to
CBP data, most hard drugs are smuggled through the ports.

"A strong case can be made now that the biggest risks are at the
ports of entry," Olson said.

Olson supports the bill's call to add 3,500 more CBP officers, which
he said also potentially "has a huge benefit, which is making the
ports more efficient and reducing wait times for business and for
legal travelers between the U.S. and Mexico."

Outside analysts aren't the only ones suggesting Congress reconsider
its focus on more security.

A May 3 Congressional Research Service study invited members of
Congress to consider that "certain additional investments at the
border may be met with diminishing returns." Some lawmakers, the
report said, "may question the concrete benefits of deploying more
sophisticated surveillance systems across ... vast regions in which
too few personnel are deployed to respond to the occasional illegal
entry that may be detected."

For their part, Homeland Security, CBP and Border Patrol officials in
recent months reiterated Secretary Janet Napolitano's insistence that
the border is more secure than ever before. And Assistant
Commissioner Borkowski earlier this year made it clear CBP learned
one lesson from its past struggles with technology: He said CBP won't
even consider buying technology unless it has been proven to work in
the field.

But Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., sees the push for border security as
political. "Without it, you don't have a path to citizenship or any
real compromise" in the immigration bill, he said.

"But if we're going to put more resources on the border, we should
modernize the ports of entry, to expedite trade and travel," Grijalva
said. More drones, towers and sensors "may have symbolic value. But
it's fighting a perception, rather than a reality."


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