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'Virtual' fence along U.S.-Mexico border delayed

Citing technical glitches, Homeland Security officials settle for three-year lag to complete first phase of cameras and other surveillance gear in Arizona and Texas.

The Bush administration's plan to outfit the U.S.-Mexico border with a "virtual" fence consisting of sensors, cameras, and drone aircraft is running into technical snags.

Federal officials told a congressional committee on Wednesday that the first phase of the project--consisting of about 100 miles near Yuma and Tuscon, Ariz., and El Paso, Texas--won't likely be completed until 2011, about three years later than expected, according to The Washington Post. The task is being overseen by the Department of Homeland Security and has been contracted out to Boeing.

The Bush administration is working on adding a 'virtual' fence--consisting of sensors, drones, and cameras--in an effort to supplement physical fences like this one along the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. Department of Homeland Security

For years, the Bush administration has been heralding the concept of a "high-tech" fence as a sophisticated, 21st-century way to help border patrol agents nab foreigners trying to sneak into the country--and supplement physical fences, which are also in the works. In 2006, it estimated that it would cost $7.6 billion to secure the entire 2,000-mile southern border. Critics, including Democrats in Congress, charge the effort has been wasteful and poorly executed so far, and civil libertarians have raised questions about privacy.

The decision to postpone completion of the first phase came after government auditors discovered numerous flaws in a 28-mile pilot of the border fence in Arizona. Known as "Project 28," the $20.6 million effort was supposed to have been operational last summer, but software integration issues stymied a timely launch.

In the past, other glitches--including lags in radar information displaying in command centers and newly deployed radars being activated by rain or other environmental factors--have made the system unusable, according to Government Accountability Office investigators. However, the GAO did note in its testimony Wednesday to Congress (PDF) that border security agents they interviewed say the current project provides "greater technological capabilities" than what they're accustomed to working with.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last week that the department had "accepted" the pilot, which he said means the agency will take elements of the prototype and apply them to other parts of its virtual fence plan. He also said the department plans to double the number of unmanned aerial vehicles policing the border. In a blog entry on Tuesday, Chertoff denied any allegations that the overall border security plan is facing setbacks or, as The Wall Street Journal called it in a weekend article, "mothballing."

"I've seen this system work with my own eyes, and I've talked with the Border Patrol Agents who are using it," Chertoff wrote. "They assure me that it adds value."