San Diego Union Tribune

September 10, 2005

High-tech surveillance eyed for both borders
America's Shield on hold pending unified strategy

By Toby Eckert

WASHINGTON – As Congress and the White House confront growing concerns about border security, officials are pondering a major expansion of surveillance along the Mexican and Canadian borders.

The America's Shield Initiative would deploy an integrated system of video cameras, high-tech sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles along thousands of miles of desert, forest and water.

While immigration-control advocates and potential contractors have been eagerly awaiting details of the $2.5 billion plan, homeland security officials have delayed the rollout.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said recently that he wants to make sure the initiative, known as the ASI, is integrated into a larger strategy that would address the problem of porous borders "once and for all . . . rather than simply going out and buying a lot of newfangled gadgets."

"I think the American public is rightly distressed about a situation in which they feel we do not have proper control over our borders," Chertoff said after the governors of Arizona and New Mexico declared border emergencies last month. "We need to have a comprehensive solution and one that really will work."

Officials thus are reluctant to discuss details of the initiative, including the level of surveillance, until a broader plan is developed. The uncertainty has disappointed those who want the federal government to move more aggressively against illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

"I'm very concerned about it. I think it's slipping," said Mark Reed, who runs Border Management Strategies, a security consulting firm based in Tucson. "A new comprehensive immigration bill or not, ASI needs to happen. Technology has got to be a very big piece of the enforcement strategy. When you're stuck out there and you're literally blind, and cannot tell Congress, cannot tell the president, cannot tell the public who's coming across your borders or how many, that's a sad, sad situation.

"It's a fundamental piece that cannot lag behind the strategy. It's got to be out front."

Others are not so eager to see the system set up, particularly privacy advocates who worry about the precedent it might set for more extensive surveillance beyond the borders in the name of combating terrorism. Homeland security officials have stressed that an important component of the ASI will be to guard the borders against terrorist infiltration and the potential smuggling of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons into the country.

"Overall, the idea of having covert surveillance through airplanes, through cameras, through infrared sensors is disturbing," said Melissa Ngo, staff counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. "Because you live in a border area, you have less privacy, and we don't think that should happen. It just seems like another step towards being able to have surveillance everywhere, and not just at the border."

Ngo said a better alternative would be to continue adding to the number of agents who patrol the borders.

Other experts say that is a naive analysis, noting that the border with Mexico stretches for more than 2,000 miles and the Canadian border is more than double that length.

"The border is so big, both northern and southern and the sea borders, that you could never hire your way out of the problem," said a former Bush administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains an informal adviser. "You're never going to be able to hire enough Border Patrol agents to enforce the border without technology multipliers such as cameras, sensors and the like.

"I think ASI makes sense, but it only makes sense if you put it into a broader framework, which I think the department is in the process of doing. They need to look at capabilities across the board before they go out and buy technology multipliers."

A complicating factor has been the widely perceived failure of the system that the ASI is designed to build on: ISIS, the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System. The $240 million border-camera system, begun in 1998, has been plagued by mismanagement and faulty equipment, according to a blistering government audit.

Members of Congress say they are determined not to see those mistakes repeated.

The system "was the poster child, in my view, of procurement abuse and problems," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., told Chertoff at a recent hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee. "As we look forward to the America's Shield program, I think we need to take ISIS as our lessons-learned pilot program, and make corrections."

House and Senate appropriators have earmarked $51 million for the ASI in next year's budget. The House Appropriations Committee report made it clear that lawmakers plan to keep closer tabs on the initiative and are determined to see it integrated with the nation's broader homeland security and intelligence apparatus.

Joseph Saponaro, president of L3 Communications, which acquired the company that originally set up ISIS, told a Senate border security subcommittee that America's Shield would "require a massive system integration effort" to ensure that data from cameras, sensors and aerial drones can be consolidated, analyzed and shared with various agencies.

Government procurement experts said that could give an edge in the competition for contracts to large defense contractors such as Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman; Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin; and Raytheon of Lexington, Mass. San Diego-based SAIC and Computer Sciences Corp. of El Segundo also have been mentioned as possible bidders.

"There are some significant complexities and differences between the two borders. They're going to have to come up with one centralized approach that then gets tailored to the different regions. It's pretty complicated," said a business consultant familiar with the program, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she is advising companies interested in bidding.

The companies declined to comment.

The size and shape of the America's Shield Initiative are not likely to become clear until the Homeland Security Department completes a plan that includes everything from adequate detention space for illegal immigrants to more rapid deportation proceedings.

Chertoff said the department is "mapping the entire border in terms of exactly what the flow is, what our current resource situation is, where we would need to put resources, and then using that mapping as a way to develop a very specific strategy on all of these legs to exhaustively address this issue of illegal migration."

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