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Critics have called President Trump's border wall a 14th century solution. They say artificial intelligence and new surveillance technology can secure the border without spending billions on steel and concrete. Now comes a government watchdog report that faults Customs and Border Protection for not considering alternatives to the wall. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Trump's giant wall gets all the buzz, but Customs and Border Protection is quietly testing a new generation of free-standing surveillance towers on the Arizona border that could revolutionize border security. The telescoping towers are equipped with infrared and daytime cameras, along with laser rangefinders and illuminators that can zoom in on a target miles away for a close-up. They're mounted in the bed of a Ford F-150, so they're completely mobile, and they can be operated remotely. They can tell an agent if the object moving north is a cow or a single migrant or a family.
KELLY GOOD: The camera sees something - it's going to alert and then send that information to an agent in the field directly. So if I have a phone now, my phone will have an app on it, and that information will come directly to me.
BURNETT: That's CBP's Kelly Good. As deputy executive director of the program management office, he's in charge of technology acquisition. I met him last March at the Border Security Expo in San Antonio, where domain awareness technology was the hottest gear. With Trump's border wall now approaching $25 million a mile, I asked Good, how much do the mobile towers cost?
GOOD: Little less than a million.
BURNETT: Less than a million.
That's the same question the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department had. Last month, the watchdog released a report critical of the Border Patrol's single-minded fixation on a wall as the answer to border security. The inspector general wrote, quote, "CBP's inability to effectively guide this large-scale effort poses significant risk of exponentially increasing costs." In fact, the audit said Border Patrol insisted on a wall, even though the agency's own internal analysis said technology and boots on the ground were smarter solutions in certain regions.
Representative Henry Cuellar is a Texas Democrat from a border district where CBP proposes to build 121 miles of barriers.
HENRY CUELLAR: We now are in a time we can build this virtual border wall technology. We have that already. I mean, you got the autonomous surveillant powers. But there is political pressure from the White House. They're saying, build me the wall. Get me miles.
BURNETT: Last week, three landowners in the Laredo area filed legal documents in federal court, trying to stop the government from condemning their riverside property for wall construction. One of their arguments is the inspector general's report. Carlos Flores is an attorney representing the property owners.
CARLOS FLORES: Ten years ago, everybody was using Blackberries. But now, you know, everyone's using the latest iPhone. And so the technology for securing the southern border has grown dramatically so that you have technology that you can use today that is probably more cost-effective than this antiquated border wall.
BURNETT: CBP counters that the agency needs both - the wall and the all-seeing mobile towers. Eyes in the sky can detect illegal crossers, but it can't stop them, says Kelly Good, the CBP tech guy back at the Border Security Expo.
GOOD: So if you have just technology, they can still come right through there. All they have to do is get across and get on that highway, load up in a car and they're gone. The wall or barrier is giving you time to slow it down.
BURNETT: To the criticism that CBP did not consider cheaper, alternate methods to control the border, the agency responded that it was following an executive order from the president to build a physical barrier. All of this may be a moot point if Trump doesn't win a second term. Last week, Joe Biden spoke to a convention of Hispanic and Black journalists.
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JOE BIDEN: There will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration.
BURNETT: The presumptive Democratic nominee agrees that a 30-foot-tall structure is not the only answer.
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BIDEN: I'm going to make sure that we have border protection, but it's going to be based on making sure that we use high-tech capacity to deal with it.
BURNETT: While Trump's Border Patrol says it has to have a physical barrier, under a Democratic White House, the agency may rediscover a virtual wall.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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