The quick fix may involve sending in the National Guard. But to really patch up the broken border, President Bush is preparing to turn to a familiar administration partner: the nation's giant military contractors.
Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, three of the largest, are among the companies that said they would submit bids within two weeks for a multibillion-dollar federal contract to build what the administration calls a "virtual fence" along the nation's land borders.
Using some of the same high-priced, high-tech tools these companies have already put to work in Iraq and Afghanistan — like unmanned aerial vehicles, ground surveillance satellites and motion-detection video equipment — the military contractors are zeroing in on the rivers, deserts, mountains and settled areas that separate Mexico and Canada from the United States.
It is a humbling acknowledgment that despite more than a decade of initiatives with macho-sounding names, like Operation Hold the Line in El Paso or Operation Gate Keeper in San Diego, the federal government has repeatedly failed on its own to gain control of the land borders.
Through its Secure Border Initiative, the Bush administration intends to not simply buy an amalgam of high-tech equipment to help it patrol the borders — a tactic it has also already tried, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, with extremely limited success. It is also asking the contractors to devise and build a whole new border strategy that ties together the personnel, technology and physical barriers.
"This is an unusual invitation," the deputy secretary of homeland security, Michael Jackson, told contractors this year at an industry briefing, just before the bidding period for this new contract started. "We're asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business."
The effort comes as the Senate voted Wednesday to add hundreds of miles of fencing along the border with Mexico. The measure would also prohibit illegal immigrants convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors from any chance at citizenship.
The high-tech plan being bid now has many skeptics, who say they have heard a similar refrain from the government before.
"We've been presented with expensive proposals for elaborate border technology that eventually have proven to be ineffective and wasteful," Representative Harold Rogers, Republican of Kentucky, said at a hearing on the Secure Border Initiative program last month. "How is the S.B.I. not just another three-letter acronym for failure?"
President Bush, among others, said he was convinced that the government could get it right this time.
"We are launching the most technologically advanced border security initiative in American history," Mr. Bush said in his speech from the Oval Office on Monday.
Under the initiative, the Department of Homeland Security and its Customs and Border Protection division will still be charged with patrolling the 6,000 miles of land borders.
The equipment these Border Patrol agents use, how and when they are dispatched to spots along the border, where the agents assemble the captured immigrants, how they process them and transport them — all these steps will now be scripted by the winning contractor, who could earn an estimated $2 billion over the next three to six years on the Secure Border job.
More Border Patrol agents are part of the answer. The Bush administration has committed to increasing the force from 11,500 to about 18,500 by the time the president leaves office in 2008. But simply spreading this army of agents out evenly along the border or extending fences in and around urban areas is not sufficient, officials said.
"Boots on the ground is not really enough," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday at a news conference that followed Mr. Bush's announcement to send as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to the border.
The tools of modern warfare must be brought to bear. That means devices like the Tethered Aerostat Radar, a helium-filled airship made for the Air Force by Lockheed Martin that is twice the size of the Goodyear Blimp. Attached to the ground by a cable, the airship can hover overhead and automatically monitor any movement night or day. (One downside: it cannot operate in high winds.)
Northrop Grumman is considering offering its Global Hawk, an unmanned aerial vehicle with a wingspan nearly as wide as a Boeing 737, that can snoop on movement along the border from heights of up to 65,000 feet, said Bruce Walker, a company executive.
Closer to earth, Northrop might deploy a fleet of much smaller, unmanned planes that could be launched from a truck, flying perhaps just above a group of already detected immigrants so it would be harder for them to scatter into the brush and disappear.
Raytheon has a package of sensor and video equipment used to protect troops in Iraq that monitors an area and uses software to identify suspicious objects automatically, analyzing and highlighting them even before anyone is sent to respond.
These same companies have delivered these technologies to the Pentagon, sometimes with uneven results.
Each of these giant contractors — Lockheed Martin alone employs 135,000 people and had $37.2 billion in sales last year, including an estimated $6 billion to the federal government — is teaming up with dozens of smaller companies that will provide everything from the automated cameras to backup energy supplies that will to keep this equipment running in the desert.
The companies have studied every mile of border, drafting detection and apprehension strategies that vary depending on the terrain. In a city, for example, an immigrant can disappear into a crowd in seconds, while agents might have hours to apprehend a group walking through the desert, as long as they can track their movement.
If the system works, Border Patrol agents will know before they encounter a group of intruders approximately how many people have crossed, how fast they are moving and even if they might be armed.
Without such information, said Kevin Stevens, a Border Patrol official, "we send more people than we need to deal with a situation that wasn't a significant threat," or, in a worst case, "we send fewer people than we need to deal with a significant threat, and we find ourselves outnumbered and outgunned."
The government's track record in the last decade in trying to buy cutting-edge technology to monitor the border — devices like video cameras, sensors and other tools that came at a cost of at least $425 million — is dismal.
Because of poor contract oversight, nearly half of video cameras ordered in the late 1990's did not work or were not installed. The ground sensors installed along the border frequently sounded alarms. But in 92 percent of the cases, they were sending out agents to respond to what turned out to be a passing wild animal, a train or other nuisances, according to a report late last year by the homeland security inspector general.
A more recent test with an unmanned aerial vehicle bought by the department got off to a similarly troubling start. The $6.8 million device, which has been used in the last year to patrol a 300-mile stretch of the Arizona border at night, crashed last month.
With Secure Border, at least five so-called system integrators — Lockheed, Raytheon and Northrop, as well as Boeing and Ericsson — are expected to submit bids.
The winner, which is due to be selected before October, will not be given a specific dollar commitment. Instead, each package of equipment and management solutions the contractor offers will be evaluated and bought individually.
"We're not just going to say, 'Oh, this looks like some neat stuff, let's buy it and then put it on the border,' "Mr. Chertoff said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Skepticism persists. A total of $101 million is already available for the program. But on Wednesday, when the House Appropriations Committee moved to approve the Homeland Security Department's proposed $32.1 billion budget for 2007, it proposed withholding $25 million of $115 million allocated next year for the Secure Border contracting effort until the administration better defined its plans.
"Unless the department can show us exactly what we're buying, we won't fund it," Representative Rogers said. "We will not fund programs with false expectations."
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