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Virtual Border Fence Getting Back on Track

The man in charge of building a virtual fence along America's southern border said Thursday that the much-maligned network is moving ahead and will work despite criticism and public misunderstanding.

Mark Borkowski, executive director of the Secure Border Initiative, conceded that initial testing of the system near Tucson, Ariz., seemed like a "disaster" because of equipment glitches. However, he added, flaws are expected with new technology, and the problems have been resolved.

"It was a prototype. We did a bad job of communicating that," said Borkowski, speaking at the Border Security Expo and Conference in Phoenix.

"When we got out there, it didn't work very well," he added. "We fixed it."

The electronic monitoring system known as SBINet is being built by the Boeing Co. and other contractors at an expected cost of $6.7 billion. As planned, it would in the next five years cover much of the 2,000-mile Southwestern border.

The virtual fence employs motion sensors, laser lights, cameras, radar and other instruments to alert agents when people are trying to cross the border illegally.

Borkowski said the entire system, which is supposed to detect up to 80 percent of incursions in a zone, has been upgraded to meet Border Patrol specifications and needs.

Early depictions created unrealistic expectations that a virtual fence alone would stop smugglers and undocumented immigrants, Borkowski said. Rather, he said, SBINet is one tool in a defense arsenal that relies on 20,000 Border Patrol agents and physical barricades as well.

"It is not the be-all and end-all of border security," Borkowski said. "It is a critical element of a much larger approach. . . . The idea is how to mix those three things together the right way to secure every inch of the border."

Borkowski said 624 miles of physical fencing and vehicle barricades have been erected to delay illegal crossers long enough so Border Patrol agents can catch them.

"We know people can cut through a fence. We know they can climb over a fence," he stressed, "but we want to slow them down."

By contrast, Borkowski said, the virtual fence is designed for surveillance and intelligence. Sensors detect human traffic and relay signals to nearby towers with cameras. The intelligence is transmitted to Border Patrol stations, where agents monitor the network and respond to breaches.

The first operating segment covers a 23-square-mile section of desert south of Tucson.

Borkowski said the fence will be completed and evaluated this summer by the Border Patrol. If all systems are go, a second segment will be built near Ajo, then towers that stretch across most of the Arizona border zone.

The project has been criticized for its costs, and last year the Government Accounting Office panned SBINet for delays and technological glitches.

Technical woes surfaced also. For instance, Borkowski said, sensors were linked to cameras by satellite communications that took several seconds to transmit. By the time cameras were automatically trained on a target zone, intruders had moved out of view.

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