The Border Boondoggle
By Andrew Cockburn
Sunday, September 2, 2007; B01
The U.S. Border Patrol has just unveiled a total makeover of its traditional uniform. Shiny badges and other emblems of law enforcement are out. Our frontier troops will now have a look more in keeping with their role as frontier troops, with lightweight fatigues and better weapons. Agent Ramon Ramirez told the Associated Press that the new garb looks more military, "like you mean business."
When it comes to frontier security, business is booming all over.
In Stafford County, Va., a 50-man company called McQ has started work on a $100,000 contract to develop a "smart rock" for the Department of Homeland Security. McQ, whose motto is "Tough sensors for an insensitive planet," says that its rocks, embedded with acoustic and motion sensors, will be able to detect illegal immigrants and other miscreants sneaking across our borders.
The firm expects its contract for developing the rocks to grow to $1 million by fall -- a sure sign that while immigration "reform" bills may come and go, the threat of illegal immigration will continue to expand. This is a certainty not because of the state of the Mexican economy or because of government laxity here, but because border control is now an integral part of the military-industrial national security system, which has a long history of profiteering from purported dangers to our safety.
These are that system's immutable laws: 1) The "threat," as portrayed to the public, always increases in direct proportion to the amount of money lavished on confronting it, and 2) every extra dollar appropriated for this purpose brings a progressively less effective counter to the threat, thus requiring that even more money be spent. Meanwhile, reality -- the scope and shape of whatever threat is being pressed into service -- is usually at sharp variance with the official picture, which leads to: 3) The "other side" can usually be maneuvered to react in a way that justifies further efforts on our part.
This system evolved, and reached its most perfect form, during the Cold War. Decade after decade, the American taxpayer was presented with a Soviet military machine that allegedly far outclassed our own puny efforts at military buildup and would shortly be in a position to have its way with us -- unless we invested the requisite treasure in various systems to counter the threat. Yet despite the billions lavished on our defenses, we never seemed to be able to match the foe's advertised military might.
Most famously, the "missile gap" invoked by John F. Kennedy to win the 1960 election duly spawned an immediate and costly buildup of missiles on our side, even though the gap was soon revealed to be wholly without foundation. Our buildup generated a strenuous counter-effort by the Soviet Union. So at the end of the cycle, taxpayers were informed that we still faced a "window of vulnerability" vis-?-vis the Soviets and must pay up accordingly.
Coincidentally or not, the guardians of our Mexican frontier apparently caught on to this game around the time the Soviet Union finally collapsed.
In the early 1990s, the U.S. Border Patrol began channeling would-be migrants to narrow sections of the border. Operation Gatekeeper in Southern California, for example, involved a steel fence (built from slats originally designed for landing strips in Vietnam) diverting the flow eastward from the coast to one single crossing point at San Ysidro. The consequent tightly bunched influx made for spectacular footage in "Under Siege," a movie specially produced by the Border Patrol in 1992 for the edification of an impressionable Congress. Old Pentagon hands long ago christened this tactic "threat inflation." It was deployed countless times in the days of confrontation with the USSR, when footage of the annual Soviet military parade of tanks and missiles through Red Square was an indispensable tool for our military whenever it was in search of money.
The result for the border initiative was a spectacular budgetary harvest -- a roughly 1,000 percent increase between 1986 and 2002, from $151 million to $1.6 billion, and a threefold increase in Border Patrol manpower.
But just as the break-neck expansion of our nuclear bomber fleet in the 1950s brought us little peace of mind, the "militarization of the border," as critics like to term the process, has produced a result very different from the one advertised by its promoters and beneficiaries. The number of migrants entering the United States actually increased, as documented by sociology professor Douglas S. Massey of Princeton University's Mexican Migration Project. Furthermore, the chances that an illegal entrant would be picked up went down sharply as migrants began coming across the vast Arizona desert, posing a greater challenge even for the enlarged Border Patrol. Though many were dying of thirst, many more were evading interception in the trackless wastes.
And the costs of border-control successes have been escalating just as costs did in the Cold War. Dividing the overall Border Patrol budget by the number of arrests, it turns out that the cost of a single apprehension more than quintupled between 1992 and 2002, going from $300 to $1,700. In addition, though more migrants than ever were getting in, the increased hardship and expense of the journey deterred many from rotating home on a regular basis, as had been the custom.
So the final effect of securing the border was to increase the overall number of illegal immigrants staying permanently in the United States.
Therefore, the "problem," and the consequent need for more border protection, automatically increased with each appropriation by a Congress eager to show no less resolve in warding off the Mexican threat than it had in standing up to the Russians.
Now, however, we are moving into an era of serious money, set to surpass previous border-control initiatives by a wide margin. All those extra Border Patrol officers may be expensive, but as any general or admiral worth his salt will tell you, it's technology -- the more complex and "state of the art," the better -- that really runs up the bills and brings home the pork.
This trend is typified by the soaring surveillance towers, not to mention soaring cost, of SBInet (as in Safe Border Initiative), a high-technology surveillance system managed by Boeing. It's being marketed as a "virtual fence" that will detect intruders from Mexico and ultimately Canada. The fence employs radar, cameras, acoustic and other surveillance technology sensors. These are all linked by a complex computer network that theoretically will enable agents in some distant command post to monitor any and all illegal incursions and take appropriate action, including broadcasting high-volume warnings from tower-mounted loudspeakers.
One useful indication of where all this is headed can be found in the Army's ongoing Future Combat Systems program, also managed by Boeing. This $168 billion extravaganza of computers, sensors and robots is theoretically able to automatically detect and target battlefield threats, making it so deadly to a foe, its proponents claim, that it may be possible to dispense with armor on U.S. military vehicles.
Conceptually and in other ways, FCS and SBInet have much in common. Both are based on the notion that technology can confer total awareness of a situation, leading to the automatic destruction of an enemy tank or the apprehension of a would-be tomato picker sidling across the border. Both, furthermore, can trace their ancestry to the Vietnam War and the original electronic fence composed of thousands of sensors that was deployed at vast expense across the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in hopes of detecting and destroying supplies coming south for the Viet Cong.
Known as "McNamara's Wall" for then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, it never showed any sign of working and was quietly abandoned in 1970. As a memento, Pentagon analysts preserved the tape of a relay from one sensor, the smart rock of its day, faithfully transmitting the sound of some passing Viet Cong urinating on it.
Despite this sorry record, our border guardians love their electronic fences. Before SBInet, there was the 1990s-era Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, ultimately shelved as a technical and financial disaster, complete with contractor rip-offs. Then came the more ambitious America's Shield Initiative, generating a similar result. Together, the two failed efforts cost $429 million.
SBInet, even more ambitious in design than its predecessors, was endorsed by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in 2005. The southern portion is projected to cost $7.6 billion by 2011. But Richard L. Skinner, DHS's inspector general, has reported that the cost could reach $30 billion. (Old Pentagon hands refer to this disparity between present and future costs as "front loading.") Boeing, the prime contractor, is largely being left to itself to define the program objectives. As the Government Accountability Office delicately reported earlier this year, the project's budget "lacked specificity" on "anticipated costs" and "expected mission outcomes," meaning that DHS has no idea what it will cost or what it will do.
Given such deficiencies, it seems safe to assume that $30 billion and more from now, migrants will still be sneaking in to mow our lawns and clean our discount stores, and that this ongoing threat will ensure ever-expanding rounds of spending. That's what "militarization of the border" is all about.