In the coming months, contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars will be finalized for new surveillance technology along the Southwest border.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
In the coming months, the federal government will finalize contracts for new surveillance technology to be deployed along the U.S./Mexico border. They're worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But past mistakes are now dictating these contracts will be awarded. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Jude Joffe-Block has this report.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're supposed to, like, wait to find areas...
JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: This is the Joint Intelligence and Operations Coordination Center for Customs and Border Protection in Tucson. Some of the most advanced technology on the border is on display here. In many ways, it's a model for what's to come elsewhere on the border. About 20 agents sit at desks, facing large video monitors. When they fly drones over remote patches of desert, this is where the video comes in.
Today, the monitors show what cameras on the border fence see. Agent Mark Mitchell points to one monitor that looks black and white but is actually displaying heat. He says this is an added tool for agents.
MARK MITCHELL: It will help them see people hide in the bushes a little bit easier versus the day camera, they can get lost in the brush.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Customs and Border Protection or CBP wouldn't allow me to visit the building next door, but that's where agents receive information from over a dozen surveillance towers in the desert that use both cameras and radar. They're called integrated fixed towers. They're radar sweep for drug smugglers and illegal border crossers, and they transmit video.
MITCHELL: Our agents can then determine whether that sweep is picking up - whether it's an animal whether it's a person, whether it's a vehicle.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Those fixed towers were originally put up by the contractor, Boeing. They're still functional, but the bigger project Boeing tried to create - an elaborate virtual fence called SBInet that would integrate radar, cameras and sensors all along the southwest border - was deemed a failure.
There were missed deadlines, system bugs and high costs. After pouring a billion dollars into it without the expected results, then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano cancelled SBInet in 2011. And it prompted CBP to rethink how it approaches border technology.
Thad Bingel is with Command Consulting in Washington and used to be the chief of staff at CBP.
THAD BINGEL: It really caused an examination within the agency, of going back and saying, OK, you know, we tried to design a system that kind of did a lot of things but didn't do it all very well. So let's focus, instead, on what we actually need in these different places.
JOFFE-BLOCK: What they've decided they need in Southern Arizona is a $1.5 billion plan over a decade that includes more cameras and more integrated fixed towers. This summer, CBP already awarded General Dynamics $96 million to do the remote video surveillance piece. And the competition for the contract to put up more integrated fixed towers is heating up. But this time, the contracting process has changed.
MARK BORKWOSKI: There are a lot of things different.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Mark Borkwoski works for CBP's Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition. That's a new office set up to prevent SBInet-size mistakes. So this time, CBP doesn't want to see just paper proposals. Have a dozen finalist companies had to build a model and prove their towers work on their own dime. The agency wants the fixed towers to be able to spot a single person walking, during the day or night, up to about seven miles away.
This June, the finalists, which reportedly include Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, showed off their towers in the desert. They were tested on...
BORKWOSKI: How far can your camera see? How far can your radar see? And how confident, how likely is it that if there's something out there, it will actually seeit? We call that probability detection.
JOFFE-BLOCK: CBP is expected to name a winner for the integrated fixed towers contract by the end of the year. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix.
CHAKRABARTI: And tomorrow, we'll hear about how new border security spending is generating a lot of interest among defense contractors. Our story came to us from the Fronteras Desks, a public radio collaboration in the Southwest that focuses on the border, immigration and changing demographics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.