WASHINGTON — The Bush administration outlined plans Thursday to begin operating portions of a high-tech "virtual fence" along the Southwest border later this year and strongly disputed news reports that a 28-mile pilot project to test the technology was largely a failure.
Top officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection also said they're on track to complete hundreds of miles of traditional fencing by the end of the year. But they acknowledged that disputes with Texas landowners could endanger their timetable.
CPB, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, is charged with overseeing the construction of 670 miles of pedestrian and vehicle barriers to comply with a two-year-old congressional mandate. Congress also has authorized the virtual fence — an array of sensors, cameras and other high-tech surveillance — to complement the physical barriers.
Appearing before a congressional subcommittee, CBP Commissioner Ralph Basham and other agency officials sought to assure lawmakers that the projects were moving forward despite recent press disclosures that the pilot project in Arizona, known as Project 28, was riddled with flaws.
Basham, saying the press accounts were wrong, acknowledged that the $20 million program had sustained early setbacks. But he said the project rebounded after the contractor, Boeing, spent its own money to correct most of the deficiencies. The program was certified by DHS in February and has surpassed original expectations, Basham said.
The project includes towers with cameras and radar designed to spot illegal border-crossers and convey the data to a command center miles away.
Greg Giddens, the executive director of CBP's Secure Border Initiative, said the agency plans to deploy similar technology at two other sites this summer. After evaluating the performance at the two sites, the agency plans to expand operations in September, depending on the amount of funding available.
One of the test sites will be in Arizona, Giddens said; the other hasn't been determined. Other details, such as the size of the projects, will emerge later, he said.
The CBP officials also said that they're standing behind Boeing as the contractor and that early bugs in the program were understandable in implementing a new system.
"This is not like buying paper at Staples," Giddens said.
Nevertheless, members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security displayed signs of impatience as they pressed the CBP officials for progress reports on the fencing projects and other border security initiatives.
"Whether we are talking about the technology challenges facing the Project 28 effort in Arizona or decisions about where to place border fencing, it is important not just to do it, but to get it right," said subcommittee chairman David Price, D-N.C.
An official with the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, testified that Boeing developed Project 28 "with very little input" from the Border Patrol. The official, Richard Stana, also told the panel that completing the fence by December will "be challenging" because of landowner disputes and logistical issues.
Texas border area officials who appeared before the subcommittee in mid-February complained that the Bush administration has failed to adequately consult landowners in planning the fence. Chad Foster, the mayor of Eagle Pass, Texas, said meetings claimed by the CBP were little more than phone calls and meals in restaurants.
But Basham said the administration has conducted 18 town-hall meetings and has had hundreds of contacts with local officials. "We're doing everything we can to make this a collaborative process," he said.
Of 450 landowners, Giddens said, only 77 have declined to grant the agency access to their properties, resulting in condemnation suits to begin preparations for the fence. Of the 77, he said, 20 couldn't be located or identified.
Giddens said work on the fence is on pace, but he agreed with Stana's assessment that legal action arising from the condemnation cases could delay the effort.