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Homeland Security chief cancels costly virtual border fence

By the CNN Wire Staff
U.S. Border Patrol agents monitor the U.S.-Mexico border on in December 2010 near Nogales, Arizona.
U.S. Border Patrol agents monitor the U.S.-Mexico border on in December 2010 near Nogales, Arizona.
  • Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano cites cost overruns and technical problems
  • The virtual fence for the 2,000-mile border was conceived in 2005
  • So far, taxpayers have spent almost $1 billion for only 53 miles of virtual fence in Arizona

(CNN) -- Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Friday canceled the controversial virtual fence along the U.S. border with Mexico, citing technical problems, cost overruns and schedule delays since its inception in 2005.

The Secure Border Initiative-network, a high-tech surveillance system to reduce border smuggling, so far has cost taxpayers almost $1 billion for two regions in Arizona, covering just 53 miles overall on the 2,000-mile border, according to a homeland security report.

Napolitano announced "a new path forward for security technology" along the border that is tailored to the needs of each region and provides "faster deployment of technology, better coverage, and a more effective balance between cost and capability," she said in a prepared statement.

"There is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution to meet our border technology needs," Napolitano said about her decision to end the problem-plagued virtual fence.

Her new plan would use mobile surveillance systems, drones, thermal imaging devices, and tower-based remote video surveillance, she said.

"Where appropriate, this plan will also incorporate already existing elements of the former SBInet program that have proven successful, such as stationary radar, and infrared and optical sensor towers," Napolitano said.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Connecticut, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, lauded the decision.

"The secretary's decision to terminate SBInet ends a long-troubled program that spent far too much of the taxpayers' money for the results it delivered," Lieberman said in a written statement. "From the start, SBInet's one-size-fits-all approach was unrealistic. The department's decision to use technology based on the particular security needs of each segment of the border is a far wiser approach, and I hope it will be more cost effective."

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Mississippi, ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the virtual fence "has been a grave and expensive disappointment since its inception."

Thompson said he is glad that homeland security officials are "finally listening to what we have been saying for years -- that the sheer size and variations of our borders show us a one-stop solution has never been best," he said in a prepared statement. "I applaud them for taking this critical step toward using a more tailored technologically based approach to securing our nation's borders."

The decision ends the work of federal contractor Boeing to build the virtual fence, and the homeland security agency will conduct open bidding for the new border plan, agency officials said.

Boeing spokeswoman Jenna K. McMullin said in a statement that the firm remains "committed to providing valuable solutions and supporting" the federal agency.

"We appreciate that they recognize the value of the integrated fixed towers Boeing has built, tested, and delivered so far," McMullin said. "We are proud of the accomplishments of our team and of the unprecedented capabilities delivered in the last year that provide Border Patrol agents increased safety, situational awareness, and operational efficiency."

Napolitano said "unprecedented" manpower, infrastructure and resources along the border will complement her new border security plan.

The U.S. Border Patrol is better staffed than at any time in its 86-year history, having nearly doubled the number of agents from approximately 10,000 in 2004 to more than 20,500 in 2010, according to a homeland security report.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has increased the number of federal agents deployed to the Southwest border, with a quarter of its personnel currently in the region.

President Obama has also deployed 1,200 National Guardsmen to the border.

In fiscal years 2009 and 2010, federal agents seized more than $282 million in illegal currency, more than 7 million pounds of drugs, and more than 6,800 weapons along the border -- increases of more than $73 million, more than 1 million pounds of drugs and more than 1,500 weapons compared with 2007-2008.

Also, the Border Patrol's nationwide apprehensions of undocumented immigrants decreased from nearly 724,000 in 2008 to about 463,000 in 2010, a 36 percent reduction, indicating that fewer people are attempting to illegally cross the border, a homeland security report said.