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Eye of Sauron poked after dodgy debrief

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Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials have been lambasted by Congressmen after apparently attempting to conceal technical problems and programme slippages.

The DHS' Customs and Border Protection outfit (CBP) has a project called the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), with a network-enabled tech portion known as SBInet. Aerospace/defence giant Boeing is the main contractor. The centrepiece of SBInet is an impenetrable barrier of 98-foot-tall radar and video surveillance towers, with built in wireless networking. The towers use moving-target-indicator radar to pick up people or vehicles trying to move across the US border. Then the all-seeing video eye swivels round to verify that the radar blip is indeed a huddled mass yearning to breathe free, rather than a harmless animal. (Or perhaps a couple of hobbits fixing to bring down the government.)

Once the Eye of Sauron SBInet has verified an illegal-alien/terrorist incursion, ordinary border patrols can monitor it on laptop maps in their vehicles, and the miscreants will be manacled and on their way south again before they can so much as think about picking any crops, scrubbing any dishes, dropping evil jewellery into volcanoes etc.

The eventual cost of SBI is hard to pin down. The DHS inspector-general has said it could go as high as $30bn, though the official departmental estimate is $8bn. For now, all Boeing has is a $67m demonstration contract.

The first trial of SBInet was to have taken place on June 13 at a 28-mile sector of the Mexico/Arizona border designated "Project 28". Boeing and DHS functionaries reported on SBInet to the Congressional Homeland Security Committee on June 7, and apparently everything was hunky-dory at that point.

But then, according to a report in Aviation Week, the SBInet scallywags apparently tried the old "oh, just one more thing," gambit. The next day they phoned the committee staff and said that, sorry, they'd forgotten to mention it, brain like a sieve, forget my own head next, erm - actually Project 28 won't go live on the 13th. It'll be the 20th, though, never fear.

Two days later the officials called again to say that the 20th wasn't good for them either, because of problems networking the spyeye towers. Aviation Week doesn't say, but it sounds as though the pusillanimous DHS types waited until everyone had gone home, then hastily left the message on voicemail before hiding under the duvet.

Understandably the Congresspersons weren't amused, and suspected that the Boeing and DHS people had been well aware that SBInet was struggling when they briefed the committee.

In a letter to DHS head honcho Michael Chertoff, committee chairman Bennie Thompson (Democrat, Mississippi) and border subcommittee chairwoman Loretta Sanchez (Democrat, California) expressed their displeasure.

"It is difficult to believe that with problems of this magnitude, delays were not foreseeable at the June 7 hearing," grumbled the legislators. They asked Chertoff to come clean regarding SBInet, citing "failure to be forthcoming and the repeatedly slipping project deadlines".

Looks as though Chertoff's lads might not be asked to sit down, next time they're on Capitol Hill to give a briefing. And overworked border patrollers may have to wait a while for their huddled-mass-tracker laptop maps. But apparently they don't have a big problem finding the wannabe-Americans anyway.

If Boeing had a way of convincing Mexicans and other poor folk it was a good idea to stay at home rather than joining the American Dream - now that might be a trick worth $30bn. The Aviation Week report is here

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