Virtual border fence put on hold

Associated Press / March 17, 2010

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PHOENIX — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will freeze funds for expanding the virtual fence that was supposed to monitor most of the 2,000-mile southern US border by 2011, she said yesterday. Currently, it covers only part of Arizona’s boundary with Mexico.

The virtual fence is a network of cameras, ground sensors, and radars designed to let a few dispatchers watch the border and send out Border Patrol agents as needed.

Technical problems and delays have put the virtual fence in jeopardy. Two months ago, Napolitano ordered a reassessment. So far, the project has cost $672 million.

“Not only do we have an obligation to secure our borders, we have a responsibility to do so in the most cost-effective way possible,’’ Napolitano said in a statement that did not specify how much funding would be frozen until the reassessment is completed.

Napolitano also plans to redirect $50 million from the Arizona portion to pay for radios, cameras, and thermal-imaging devices that would be used at the border but wouldn’t be strung together as a virtual fence.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, applauded that decision, saying Napolitano has decided to turn “to commercially available technology that can be used to immediately secure our border from illegal entries.’’

Representative Bennie Thompson, who leads the House Homeland Security Committee, called the project an expensive disappointment. Napolitano’s announcement “is a recognition that this troubled program needs better management,’’ the Mississippi Democrat said.