Administration touts 'virtual' border fence plans

President, Homeland Security chief talk up idea of more motion sensors, infrared cameras and UAVs to combat illegal crossings.

WASHINGTON--The Bush administration on Thursday ramped up its support for erecting a "virtual" border fence to keep tabs on illicit entries to the country.

In separate speeches here, both President Bush and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff pledged to create such "high-tech" fences as part of the government's ongoing attempts to catch foreigners who try to sneak into the country under its radar.

Speaking at a Homeland Security event organized by the Brookings Institution, an independent think tank, Chertoff deemed the plan a "21st century proposal" that would "allow us to bind together and leverage these Border Patrol agents." The Bush administration has also announced plans to hire 6,000 more agents by 2008, resulting in a force that has doubled in size since the president first took office.

Details on the proposal remain scant, but both officials made reference to expanded use of motion sensors, infrared cameras and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, all of which are already employed to some extent.

Those ideas have also received backing from the U.S. Senate as part of a sweeping, highly controversial immigration bill approved last week. That measure instructs the Feds to come up with a plan for new technology to monitor the borders, "including unmanned aerial vehicles, tethered aerostat radars and other surveillance equipment."

But the proposal has not received a uniformly positive response. On the U.S. House of Representatives side, members of a committee charged with appropriating funds for such a project voiced skepticism at a hearing earlier this year, pointing to what one politician deemed a "wasteful" track record in the realm of border surveillance technology. Last summer, the Homeland Security Office of Inspector General released a report (click for PDF) that noted numerous shortcomings in existing surveillance programs.

The move is intended to supplement more overtly physical barriers, including a proposed extension of double- and triple-layered fencing along the country's southern border that has been a magnet for criticism in some circles.

Earlier on Thursday morning, the president told an audience at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that he planned this month to send 6,000 National Guard members to assist the existing Border Patrol force until an equivalent number of patrol officers can be trained and deployed.

"They're going to operate surveillance systems and analyze intelligence, and install fences and vehicle barriers, and build patrol roads and provide training," Bush said, according to prepared remarks.

A handful of prominent corporations seeking lucrative contracts to design the technology have described the project as a six-year, $2 billion effort. Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are among the firms that recently revealed they had submitted bids, with an award announcement by DHS expected this fall.

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