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Cover Story: Despite Calls for Fencing-In the Border, U.S. Sticks with Surveillance and Comms on Southwest Borders

Mar. 22, 2012 - 06:45PM   |  
By Keith Button   |   Comments
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A team of researchers from Princeton University calculates that the security of the border between the U.S. and Mexico is better than ever. But with more cameras being erected, and more aircraft and agents patrolling the border, U.S. analysts caution that intelligence sharing among agents and dispatchers must continue to improve if this trend is to continue. On top of that, doubters outside the Obama administration are yet to be convinced these high-tech solutions make more financial and strategic sense than attempting to block the entire border with fences.

The Obama administration has stuck by its high-tech approach and resisted calls, sometimes voiced by presidential campaigners, to build physical fencing along the entire nearly 2,000-mile southwest border. In March 2009, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would begin rushing more patrols and equipment to the southwest border partly to make up for delays in developing the now-cancelled Secure Border Initiative network, a proposed virtual fence of camera towers and communications equipment. The steps included assigning 1,000 more border patrol agents to the southwest, increasing intelligence analysis and expanding unmanned Predator aircraft surveillance along the Mexican border, for a total of $600 million in additional spending.

In addition, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency plans to add more unmanned aircraft to the border surveillance fleet of 127 manned aircraft and four unmanned airplanes. DHS and CBP have also deployed additional “non-intrusive” inspection equipment to the border area, including mobile surveillance systems, remote video surveillance systems, thermal imaging systems, radiation portal monitors and license plate readers.

DHS is not backing off its focus on technology over physical walls, although barriers have been erected along some stretches of the border. When DHS cancelled its SBInet contract with Boeing in January 2011, it announced it would continue to build the virtual fence with less expensive, commercially available equipment, including unmanned aircraft, thermal imaging devices, backscatter units, mobile radios and remote video surveillance systems.

Ever since, ISR companies have been trying to catch the eye of DHS officials with equipment they promise can scan more terrain or link border patrol agents with dispatchers and each other more effectively. Two of the companies are ITT Exelis with its GNOMAD (for Global Network On the Move — Active Distribution) mobile satellite communications network, and Northrop Grumman with its optionally piloted Fire Scout aircraft.

GNOMAD provides connections to commercial Ku-band satellites from moving vehicles anywhere in the world, said Ross Osbourne, senior business development manager at ITT Exelis. The nearly flat antenna can be mounted on top of a minivan or SUV — extending radio communications or computer connections to border patrol agents out of reach of radios or cell coverage.

GNOMAD costs $300,000, compared with at least $500,000 for competing systems, and is less conspicuous than parabolic dish systems that have been used on U.S. Army vehicles, Osbourne said. A backpack-portable version of GNOMAD, weighing less than 50 pounds, is under development.

For overhead border surveillance, Northrop says Firebird has big advantages. It can carry up to five sensors at a time, which makes it more cost effective than flying multiple aircraft with fewer sensors. It can be converted from its manned to unmanned mode in the time it takes to refuel, said Rick Crooks, Northrop’s program director for Firebird. In piloted mode, it can be flown through commercial airspace without the special permission the Federal Aviation Administration requires for unmanned aircraft — a process that can take months or years, Crooks said.

Last year, Doug Massey, head of Princeton University’s Mexican Migration Project, reported that net migration from Mexico had reached zero for the first time in 60 years.

Policymakers and presidential candidates have argued about whether U.S.-Mexico border security is best served by physical fences or a so-called virtual fence, utilizing cameras and other ground and airborne sensors. Another point of contention is which approach — the virtual equipment currently in place or the partial physical fencing along the border — is responsible for the net-zero immigration.

For the nearly 2,000-mile border, in some locations a physical fence can serve as a good tool for limiting illicit cross-border traffic, but in other locations, fencing doesn’t make sense, said Christopher Wilson, program associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

“Building a 10-foot fence on top of a several thousand foot mountain, for instance, is not helpful. If someone is willing and able to climb the mountain, they will also be able to climb the fence,” Wilson said.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, said a virtual fence has several advantages over the physical fence.

“The problem with the [physical] fence is, it’s surmountable — it can be overcome,” Felbab-Brown said. It also causes problems for border communities — preventing wildlife migration, including bats that pollinate crops; denying water access to farmers along the Rio Grande River portion of the border; and disrupting trans-border communities whose economies rely on commerce from cross-border flow, she said.

“The technological virtual border has turned out [to be] surprisingly effective. And the amount of detection that can be attributed to the visual sensors and other sensors that are around the border is great,” Felbab-Brown said. “I think the claims of the security benefits of the physical fence are questionable, and the costs are very real.”

Determining what factors or policies have led to the net-zero migration from Mexico is difficult, Felbab-Brown said. Besides the two fence concepts, violence in Mexico against potential border crossers, the economic downturn in the U.S. and the increasing opportunities in Mexico have all played a role, she said.

The U.S. economy was probably the main factor, Wilson said. “A large part of it was, we saw a huge change happen in the flow of unauthorized immigrants after and during the financial crisis in the U.S. So as there were fewer employment opportunities in the U.S., there was less of a magnet for Mexicans to pick up and move to the United States in search of a good job,” he said.

POINTS OF ENTRY While most people tend to think about border threats in terms of drug tunnels and armed bands roaming through the desert, the fact is that illicit traffic is more likely to come into the U.S. through ports of entry than between them, Wilson said.

The most important places to apply intelligence-gathering technology are the ports of entry, Wilson said, pointing to examples such as license plate readers, trusted traveler programs and analytical approaches to identifying low- and high-risk traffic.

Trusted-traveler programs free up resources to focus on higher-level risk individuals or situations, Wilson said. SENTRI, or the Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, is the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s trusted-traveler program that allows pre-approved, low-risk travelers crossing the Mexican border to access dedicated commuter traffic lanes, which expedites their crossing. Free and Secure Trade, or FAST, is a similar program for commercial truck drivers.

DHS is focusing on a “risk segmentation” concept, separating high-risk and low-risk pools of individuals for analysis, Wilson said. The department has hired consulting companies, including the firm of former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration head Robert Bonner, to create risk-analysis models.

“The idea is, you’re not just trying to identify the guy with drugs or something worse, in the case of terrorism, trying to cross the border,” Wilson said. “But you’re also trying to facilitate the flow of people that you know aren’t presenting that sort of a risk.”

DHS also seeks to increase the amount of information known regarding individual border crossers to help establish a risk level for each crosser, Wilson said. Examples of this include the trusted traveler programs, fingerprinting every illegal immigrant picked up at the border and accessing data compiled by other agencies or by the Mexican government.

DHS reported in October that it had started operating a new Border Intelligence Fusion Section, partnering with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Defense Department. With the fusion initiative, the agency stores and synthesizes available Mexican border intelligence from federal, state, local and tribal agencies at the El Paso Intelligence Center. The goal is to create a common intelligence picture.

DHS also reported efforts with Mexico to build an interoperable cross-border communications network to coordinate law-enforcement issues.

“Mexican authorities are keen to share intelligence with the United States regarding organized crime and any potential terrorist threats,” Wilson said. “They are less interested in calling up their American counterparts to let them know where a group of migrants are seeking to cross the border.”

Mexican authorities are more likely to cooperate and share intelligence when the U.S. shows that it is targeting migrant-smuggling rings instead of individuals looking to better support their families, he said.

How well the Mexican and U.S. governments cooperate on intelligence sharing is largely unknown because Mexico doesn’t want to appear to be compromising its national security, Felbab-Brown said. Meanwhile, U.S. officials, especially at the local level, are often reluctant to trust their Mexican colleagues because of problems with deep, persistent corruption and chance of information leaks to criminal elements.

But there is a lot of information-sharing between the two sides, including intelligence acquired from ISR sensors on the U.S. side and transferred to the Mexicans, she said. Increasingly, the U.S. is handing over technology to the Mexicans, including unmanned aircraft to be flown out of Mexico.

“We also know that a great deal of intelligence that has enabled hits against the drug-trafficking groups has come from the U.S,” including phone intercepts, Felbab-Brown said. Most of the intelligence-sharing and technology transfers are focused on drug-trafficking groups, and not on people flows, she said.

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