Border surveillance tower on the U.S.-Mexico border near Nogales, Ariz.
Border surveillance tower on the U.S.-Mexico border near Nogales, Ariz.

By Jude Joffe-Block Fronteras Desk

This is the second in a two-part series with the Fronteras Desk, a public radio collaboration. Part One looked at other technologies that border contractors would like to sell to the Department of Homeland Security, if immigration reform passes and contains new money for security.

The federal government is in the midst of purchasing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of security equipment for the Southwest border. And Congress is considering spending tens of billions more. But the last time the government tried to go big with border security, it encountered some pitfalls. Federal officials are trying to learn from past mistakes as they shop for technology to secure a key stretch of the border.

Some of the most advanced technology on the border is on display at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s command center in Tucson, Ariz. In many ways it is a model for what could come elsewhere on the border, including parts of California.

About 20 agents sit at desks facing large video monitors. When they fly drones over remote patches of desert, this is where the video comes in. Today the monitors show what cameras on the border fence see. Agent Mark Mitchell points to one monitor that looks black and white, but is actually displaying heat. He says this is an added tool for agents “because it will help them see people hiding in the bushes a little easier, versus the day camera, they can get lost in the brush.”

Radar Sweeps in the Desert

These cameras have been around for some time. The building next door is where Customs and Border Protection has some of the newest technology, but I wasn’t allowed to visit. That is where agents receive information from more than a dozen surveillance towers in the desert that use both cameras and radar. They are called “integrated fixed towers.” Their radar sweeps for drug smugglers and illegal border crossers, and they transmit video. “Our agents can then determine whether that sweep is picking up, whether it is an animal, whether it is a person, whether it is a vehicle,” says Mitchell.

Those fixed towers were originally put up by Boeing, the contractor. They are still functional, but the bigger project Boeing tried to create — an elaborate virtual fence called SBInet that would have integrated radar, cameras and sensors all along the Southwest border — was deemed a failure. Thad Bingel, a Washington-based security consultant who used to be the chief of staff at Customs and Border Protection, explains the problems with the virtual fence like this: “The issue with SBInet was that it was overly ambitious,” he says.

There were missed deadlines, system bugs and escalating costs. After pouring a billion dollars into it without success, then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano canceled SBInet in 2011. And it prompted the federal government to rethink how it approaches border technology. “It really caused an examination within the agency of going back and saying, ‘OK, we tried to design a system that did a lot of things, but didn’t do it all very well, so let’s focus instead on what do you actually need in these different places,’ ” says Bingel.

Huge Ground Surveillance Contract Bids

What they’ve decided they need is to start in southern Arizona with a $1.5 billion plan that includes more cameras and more integrated fixed towers. California sector chiefs hope for similar technology eventually. For now, competition for the Arizona contracts is heating up. The bid for towers will be the single-biggest ground surveillance contract since SBInet. But this time, the contracting process has changed.

Mark Borkowski works for the border agency’s Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition. That’s a new office set up to prevent SBInet-size mistakes. He says a lot of things are different. This time, the agency doesn’t want to see just paper proposals. A half-dozen finalist companies had to build models and prove that their towers work — on their own dime. This June the finalists — which reportedly include Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics — showed off their towers in the desert.

Borkowski says they were tested on: “How far can your camera see, how far can your radar see, and how confident, how likely is it that if there is something out there, it will actually see it? We call that probability of detection,” he says.

Some outside analysts are applauding the agency for taking a more risk-averse approach. Werner Dahm directs a security research institute at Arizona State University. “Having something that works in place, and can do the job well, is better than having something that maybe is more spectacular from a technology point of view but that ultimately doesn’t end up working,” says Dahm.

The agency is expected to name a winner for the integrated fixed towers contract by the end of the year. Meanwhile, a controversy is brewing among landholders. They’re angry that the government is planning to take pieces of their land by eminent domain in order to install these towers.

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