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Originally published January 18, 2010 at 6:16 PM | Page modified January 19, 2010 at 8:59 AM

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U.S. to reassess 'virtual' fence on border with Mexico

The Department of Homeland Security's latest version of a border "virtual fence" has suffered another setback.

Arizona Daily Star

TUCSON, Ariz. — The Department of Homeland Security's latest version of a border "virtual fence" has suffered another setback — prompting Secretary Janet Napolitano to order a departmentwide reassessment of the program.

Officials expected to have a 17-tower system up and working along 23 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border flanking Sasabe, Ariz., by the end of 2009. But the handover to the Border Patrol has been delayed at least three more months. The Sasabe grid is the first in a series of virtual fences planned for the Southwest border.

In the fall of 2009, Napolitano directed the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to evaluate the SBInet program, according to a statement e-mailed from Napolitano.

"As his analysis uncovered unacceptable delays ... I ordered a departmentwide reassessment of the program to consider options that may more efficiently, effectively and economically meet our border security needs," Napolitano said in the statement. "Americans need border security now — not 10 years down the road. I am committed to ensuring that our border security programs are timely and cost-effective."

From 2006 through July 2009, Customs and Border Protection paid Boeing $1.1 billion to create and build a border-long network of camera, sensor and radar towers, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in September.

To date, only a flawed test system in Arizona is being used by the Border Patrol.

Virtual fences along the entire Southwest border were supposed to be completed by October 2009. Now they are expected to be finished by 2016, the GAO reported.

Napolitano said the department will work with Congress, the GAO, border-state officials, law enforcement and technical experts "to ensure that we are maximizing every taxpayer dollar in protecting our communities from all security threats."

Work on the system will continue during the reassessment, Homeland Security officials said. On the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Tucson — where five of the 17 towers are located — officials have been conducting tests such as walking known migrant trails to see if radar and sensors operate correctly, refuge manager Mike Hawkes said.

The towers have been up for months and were supposed to be ready by January or February, Hawkes said.

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., supports the reassessment ordered by Napolitano. Arizona's only representative on the House Committee on Homeland Security said in a statement that the virtual fence is vital to national security but that the program is way off-track.

"We have been told again and again that the roadblocks have been cleared and the project is back under way, and again and again we have seen little actual progress," Kirkpatrick said in the statement.

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In addition to the "Tucson-1"-system flanking Sasabe, Homeland Security also has plans to put up a 12-tower system called "Ajo-1" along 30 miles of border in southwestern Arizona near Ajo.

Boeing is being paid $100 million to carry out the Tucson-1 and Ajo-1 projects under its contract with Homeland Security.

The surveillance systems are one part of the government's three-pronged border-security strategy, which also includes added border barriers and agents.

The sensor towers have day and night cameras. Radar and sensor signal control units on top and unattended ground sensor receivers halfway down are linked to collect information about who and what is coming across the border. The sensor towers have a 3.7-mile radius.

That information is sent to control rooms via a microwave data transmitter. Officials say the system gives agents more information that puts them in a better position to arrest illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

Each grid includes a combination of sensor towers and communication towers used to relay the signal back to Border Patrol stations. The "Tucson-1" system has nine sensor towers and eight communication towers, while "Ajo-1"includes six sensor and six communications towers. Towers range from 40 to 120 feet high.

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