LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. You could say the government has virtually ended the virtual border fence. Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano announced yesterday that she's freezing funding for the Secure Border Initiative Network. The announcement came just two days before the Government Accountability Office was set to issue a report slamming the project. NPR's Ted Robbins has more.
TED ROBBINS: Three-and-a-half-years-ago, the Department of Homeland Security hired the Boeing Corporation to build a string of towers across the 2,000-mile U.S./Mexico Border. The towers were to use off-the-shelf products cameras, radar, connections to ground sensors all integrated so that Border Patrol agents could see who and what was coming across in real time.
Rich Stana wrote a report on the project last year for the Government Accountability Office. He says Boeing made a big promise.
Mr. RICH STANA (Government Accountability Office): Ninety to 100 percent of all illegal crossers, this camera system was going to identify and characterize the threat.
ROBBINS: Boeing built a 28-mile test section in the Southern Arizona desert. It didn't work. Boeing regrouped, redesigned and redeployed one set of towers near the first set. It's building another section right now. The entire border was supposed to be covered a year ago. But after three years and $1.4 billion the system is still full of bugs.
Mr. STANA: Well, it sort of works.
ROBBINS: And a new GAO report obtained by NPR says the bugs are coming faster than the fixes.
Mr. STANA: It's not a matter of, you know, do you look at the screen and see things. Yes, you're going to see some things. The question is: Are you going to see things over time? Is it going to be a quality image and is it going to be a reliable image?
ROBBINS: So far, the answer is no. The new report even says some tests have been rigged to guarantee success.
Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi is chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security. He says DHS is to blame for letting things go this far.
Representative BENNIE THOMPSON (Democrat, Mississippi): The department could've been far more vigilant in its oversight. But I can tell you - there's no energy or stomach on this committee for this project continuing in its present form.
ROBBINS: Boeing referred comments questions to the DHS. A Boeing executive is set to appear before the House Committee tomorrow. But yesterday, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano beat Congress to the punch: She announced a freeze on funding for the project.
DHS spokesman Matt Chandler also says $50 million will be diverted to buy things like mobile cameras, ultralight aircraft and more radios for the Border Patrol.
Mr. MATT CHANDLER (Department of Homeland Security): This is going to immediately improve our ability to secure the U.S.-Mexico border by redirecting these funds to proven solutions to meet the urgent needs that exist right now.
ROBBINS: For years, a majority in Congress has said the border needs to be secure before it will consider immigration reform. So will the failure of the SBInet be more justification to delay it? Former Immigration and Naturalization Service director Doris Meissner says that would be a mistake.
Virtual fencing, or real fencing, she says, will help. But it will not stop people from trying to cross for jobs.
Ms. DORIS MEISSNER (Former Immigration and Naturalization Service Director): The border is not the single answer to the problem of illegal immigration.
ROBBINS: Meanwhile, the virtual fence may have had a stake driven through its heart, but it's not dead yet. The DHS says it will complete a review of the program before deciding how or whether to continue.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.
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