A surveillance tower on the U.S. border with Mexico.
Image: Jonathan McIntosh

At a mid-October conference in Dallas that drew thousands of security industry professionals and government officials, defense mega-contractor Raytheon Co. unveiled its latest pricey product for keeping the nation safe, a bid to remotely detect would-be border crossers before they enter the country illegally.

Command-and-control centers staffed by border patrol agents would swiftly collect and analyze mountains of data pouring in from surveillance cameras, radar systems, ground sensors and thermal-image devices busily monitoring possible intruders as they streamed toward the nation’s border.

If all of this is starting to sound familiar, it should. Taxpayers have already shelled out at least $615 million to another major defense firm, Boeing Co., which made strikingly similar promises five years ago when it partnered with the Bush administration to create SBInet, a high-tech leg of the larger Secure Border Initiative.

SBInet, also referred to as the “virtual fence,” called for filling the desert with modern observation widgets, including a string of towers topped by digital eyes capable of vastly expanding the miles of border that enforcement officers could otherwise effectively secure. The project has since fallen short of expectations, to put it lightly.

A series of harsh reviews from congressional investigators at the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general have criticized SBInet since its earliest days, pointing to poor planning, cost overruns, scheduling setbacks, technical failures and weak contractor oversight.

The latest negative assessment surfaced just days after Raytheon’s announcement. GAO watchdogs called the deficient policing of SBInet’s prime contractor “a major contributor to the program’s well-chronicled history of not delivering promised system capabilities on time and on budget.”

Word came Oct. 22 that DHS would not continue work under Boeing’s contract, and the next day news surfaced that Obama administration officials planned to halt SBInet altogether.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, chair of the powerful Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, at an April hearing called SBInet “a classic example of a program that was grossly oversold.”

Colleague John McCain – hardly soft-spoken on the issue of border security this election year – piled on. “There’s been a lack of oversight. There’s been a lack of accountability. And by most reports, this virtual fence has been a complete failure.”

So why is Raytheon charting a course toward border surveillance after so many costly headaches?

For one thing, the Massachusetts-based company was among several that lost an earlier bid for the SBInet contract to Boeing in 2006. Raytheon may now be looking for a second chance to prove itself and simply take over where Boeing has been unsuccessful, rather than offer an entirely different solution with new hardware. (Requests for comment from Raytheon went unanswered.) Plus, the company is smarting over attempts to ink border security deals with Saudi Arabia and the U.K. worth a combined $4.5 billion that fell through.

It’s also the case that 20,000 border patrol officers just aren’t enough to cool the ongoing national furor over illegal immigration and drug-cartel violence, even if the estimated price tag of each new hire is $160,000 for background checks, salaries, night-vision goggles and additional necessities. The promise of modern technology continues to be powerfully tempting, and if taxpayers will pony up more, then Raytheon wants a cut.

While SBInet appears doomed, lawmakers and federal officials are still talking about what options may be available. GOP Congressman Michael McCaul of Texas sits on the House’s Homeland Security Committee and has said he’ll push for Defense Department technology being used in Afghanistan and Iraq. A DHS spokesman told the Los Angeles Times that border officials will determine “if there are alternatives that may more efficiently, effectively and economically meet our nation’s border security needs.”

What exists on the border now is piecemeal.

For the total investment so far from taxpayers, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 million or more, two SBInet deployments cover about 53 miles in Arizona, a sliver of the almost 2,000 miles of border the nation shares with Mexico and far from what was originally envisioned.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano earlier this year yanked $50 million in economic stimulus funds from SBInet, vowing to use it for truck-mounted cameras and other detection gear authorities believed could produce better results. A $600 million border security bill passed by Congress this summer included hiring additional agents and buying new pilotless drones, with $100 million of it coming from cancelled SBInet funds.

Raytheon says its own “Clear View,” as they’re calling the system, can be integrated with software and devices built by others. But the process of tying together, or integrating, SBInet’s array of highly technical components along a geographically diverse border – from laser range-finders to surveillance cameras to command centers – proved to be exceedingly difficult for Boeing.

Trade publications say Raytheon doesn’t limit the application of Clear View just to government clients. It could also be used by private companies to secure sensitive manufacturing facilities, for example.

But Washington always has money to spend, and Raytheon emphasizes Clear View’s potential value to the Department of Homeland Security. A former deputy chief of the Border Patrol, who now consults for Raytheon, told Government Security News the company had briefed senior federal officials about Clear View.

Raytheon specifically mentioned SBInet at the conference where it showcased the system, arguing Clear View is superior to what Boeing has done because Raytheon’s software can not only “see” those headed for the border but track their movements, all while “correlating thousands of pieces of ever-changing data and presenting a clear and coherent picture of what’s happening at any given moment,” according to GSN.

SBInet wasn’t even the first time we forked over substantial sums in an attempt at digital border security. The Clinton administration launched its lesser-known ISIS program in 1997, a planned network of seismic and infrared sensors combined with surveillance cameras. Auditors blasted it, too.

For their part, Boeing executives defend SBInet and say the technology had begun to perform reliably, leading to the seizure of narcotics and interception of illegal border crossers.

“In terms of performance on the program, progress is evident,” Boeing’s president of network and space systems, Roger Krone, told Congress in March.

Apparently that wasn’t enough for Washington – SBInet is now an expensive lesson taxpayers had to learn the hard way. How much more would Raytheon charge for the privilege?


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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.