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A Not So Secure Border Initiative: The Failed Virtual Fence Project
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A Not So Secure Border Initiative: The Failed Virtual Fence Project

P.J. Crowley details four steps that the United States needs to take to get border security—and homeland security—back on track.

The Secure Border Initiative and a number of related issues are discussed in detail in “Safe at Home,” a new strategy to secure the U.S. homeland.

The failure of the virtual fence was inevitable, a combination of an unrealistic and heavily politicized policy imperative, untested technology hastily fielded with little input from subject-matter experts, a contractor that understands airplanes a lot better than systems integration, and poor management by the federal government’s least experienced bureaucracy.

The only good news here is that the Department of Homeland Security was not building an airplane. The technology used to build the virtual fence was designed to rise only a few feet off the ground on a series of towers along the southwest and eventually the northern border. Its maiden voyage didn’t kill anyone, but it wasted millions of dollars that DHS can ill afford to lose.

So the question is: What do we do now? Given that the Bush administration will leave office in less than a year, picking up the pieces of this flawed project will largely fall to Congress and the next administration. There are four steps we should take, including:

1. Take a deep breath. Al Qaeda members are not teeming across the southwest border. The people who are coming across the border are economic migrants, not terrorists. A more secure border is a very legitimate and necessary policy requirement, but SBI’s objective—to build a combined virtual and physical fence by the end of 2008—was always about politics, not security.

2. Validate the concept and then build it. DHS should go back to the drawing board and create a process that incorporates greater input from border agents who understand the terrain better than anyone else. They should figure out what is really needed, produce a better demonstration project that adds real value, and then apply it to both the northern and southern borders.

3. Improve the management process. DHS was conceptually right in creating a pilot project before moving to full-scale production, but it has proven yet again that it is not proficient at managing a highly complex development program and converting a concept into a real capability. DHS needs to improve its requirements process, and its project management and procurement process. This is another indication of the growing gap between what we expect DHS to be able to do and its capacity to deliver.

4. Work toward comprehensive reform. Border enforcement will not solve the problem by itself. Even if the Secure Border Initiative worked perfectly, which it clearly doesn’t, it would not affect the existing flow of economic migrants, who represent a system failure rather than a security threat. Fences, whether actual or virtual, will be evaded. Smarter borders must be wedded to immigration reform, which resolves the existing gap between what our economy needs and what our existing immigration system offers in legal opportunity.

The Secure Border Initiative and a number of related issues are discussed in detail in “Safe at Home,” a new strategy to secure the U.S. homeland, released this week by the Center for American Progress.

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