Senators suggest scrapping virtual fence

Wednesday - 4/21/2010, 7:08am EDT

WFED's Max Cacas

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By Max Cacas
Reporter
Federal News Radio

A project designed during the Bush Administration to stem the flow of illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexican border has now fallen on hard times, and formerly supportive lawmakers are now hinting of a dim future for the virtual fence.

Recent violence among the southwestern border -- fueled by battles between rival Mexican drug cartels, and by officials from Mexico and the U.S. who are trying to contain cartel-related violence -- has once again turned the spotlight as well on SBINet, the official name of the "virtual fence."

Senator Joseph Lieberman (ID-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wastes no words in his disdain for SBInet during Tuesday's oversight hearing.

When the virtual fence, or SBInet, was first launched, we were told that it would be extended across our entire southwest border -- nearly 2,000 miles -- by early fiscal year 2009. Well, it is now April of 2010, almost four years after SBInet began, after $770 million has been spent directly on SBInet and we are still waiting on the testing of a 23-mile stretch in the Tucson sector. That's it! By any measure, SBInet, has been a failure. A classic example of a program that was grossly oversold and has badly under-delivered.

On this day, Arizona Senator John McCain is standing in as ranking member of the full Homeland Security Committee, also with not much good to say about SBINet:

Hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money so far has been wasted. There has been a lack of oversight and a lack of accountability. The virtual fence has been a complete failure.

The virtual fence is a network of cameras, ground sensors and radars designed to let a small number of dispatchers watch the border on a computer monitor, zoom in with cameras to see people crossing, and decide whether to send Border Patrol agents to the scene.

Alan Bersin, who heads up U.S. Customs and Border Protection, appeared for his first oversight hearing since being confirmed for his job. In his opening statement, Bersin half-heartedly suggested that CBP, and the Department of Homeland Security, have fulfilled all their obligations regarding the virtual fence. This, despite the fact that only a relatively short section of the fence in Arizona is operational.

Lieberman asked Bersin to clarify his characterization that most of CBP's obligations had been met regarding the fence. He said only that some portions of SBInet were operational, but they still lacked the ability to tie together all the elements of the virtual fence in a centrally controlled facility.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in March that she was halting funding to expand the virtual fence that originally was supposed to monitor most of the 2,000-mile southern U.S. border by 2011.

Another lawmaker asked Bersin whether the contract could be cancelled. Bersin said he was not able to render a judgment on a legal issue.

Following the hearing, Federal News Radio spoke exclusively to Chairman Lieberman. He believes the virtual fence is, "a real waste of money, hundreds of millions of dollars with not much return," and insists that, "it be brought to a point to where its working, or it be terminated."

In addition, Lieberman expressed tentative support for a proposal from McCain, and fellow Arizona senator Jon Kyl (R.), that National Guard troops be deployed along Arizona's border.

On Monday, Kyl and McCain made the proposal, part of a 10-point plan that includes hiring 3,000 more Customs and Border Protection agents for Arizona, building new fences and increasing aerial surveillance of the border.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report

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