Surveillance drone shows serious gaps in border security
WASHINGTON — A sophisticated airborne radar system developed to track Taliban fighters planting roadside bombs in Afghanistan has found a use along the U.S. border with Mexico, where it has revealed gaps in security.
Operated from a Predator surveillance drone, the radar system has collected evidence that Border Patrol agents apprehended fewer than half of the foreign migrants and smugglers who crossed illegally into a 150-square-mile stretch of southern Arizona.
The number of “gotaways,” as the Border Patrol calls those who escape apprehension, is more precise and higher than official estimates.
According to internal reports, Border Patrol agents used the airborne radar to help find and detain 1,874 people in the Sonora Desert between Oct. 1 and Jan. 17. But the radar system spotted an additional 1,962 people in the same area who evaded arrest and disappeared into the United States.
In contrast, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, estimated in January that the Border Patrol caught 64 percent of those who illegally crossed into the Tucson sector in 2011.
The new tally of unlawful border crossings could complicate White House efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform once Congress returns from recess next week.
The Obama administration contends America's borders are more strictly policed than ever, with nearly 365,000 apprehensions last year.
Republicans have demanded more guards, drones, fencing and other security measures before legal status is granted to the estimated 11 million people believed to have entered America illegally or overstayed their visas.
President Obama is scheduled to visit Mexico in early May, and efforts to maintain rigorous border security — to stop economic migrants moving north and American-made weapons flowing south — are likely to be among his priorities in discussions with Mexico's newly elected president, Enrique Pena Nieto.
The new system is called Vader, for Vehicle Dismount and Exploitation Radar. It was borrowed from the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and has been deployed in Arizona since March 2012.
Michael Friel, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the Vader remained in a “preliminary testing phase.” He said the method used in the agency's internal reports to compare apprehensions with arrests was flawed because it did not include people who were detained after the airborne radar had left the area.
Officials warn that the radar would not work well near border towns and areas where migrants and smugglers can quickly load into a car and blend into highway traffic.
“There is no silver bullet in border technology,” Friel said.
The tests have gone well enough that the agency has asked Congress to allocate money to purchase two more Vader systems. Each system costs about $5 million per year to maintain and operate.
The Pentagon's internal research and development group, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, helped design the Vader to aid forces in spotting insurgents burying improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan. Two of the systems are in use there.
The radar is sharp enough to detect and track individuals on foot from a Predator five miles overhead. It uses a synthetic aperture radar to collect high-contrast black-and-white images and to follow scores of moving targets in real time. The processed signals are transmitted from the drone to a ground station, where the figures are displayed as moving dots on a detailed map.
“It's a match made in heaven for border security,” said a former law enforcement official.
He said the radar had helped Border Patrol agents watch migrants and smugglers gathering on the Mexican side of the border before they start trekking north.
But not all of the agents are happy to get a precise head count for the first time of how many people they are missing.
“The rank-and-file guys are afraid it will make them look bad,” the official said.
The system is being tested along with military-grade camera towers and surveillance blimps developed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan in an effort to provide more accurate coverage of remote border areas.
Most of the Vader flights have focused on a stretch of border flanked by desert and the craggy Baboquivari Mountains west of Nogales, Ariz. The radar is used three or four days a week for eight to 12 hours a day.
“That is the kind of technology we would like to see all across the border,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security.
McCaul said he was briefed on the Vader during a visit to the border in Arizona on Feb. 18. He is writing a bill that would compel the Department of Homeland Security to write a national strategy that accurately measures the effectiveness of border security efforts.
“You can't measure what you can't see,” the congressman said. “There is an awful lot we're not seeing.”
Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington with close ties to the White House, said linking immigration policy to illegal border crossings is a “political gimmick” designed to delay any real reforms.
No matter how many border agents or high-tech systems are deployed on the border, Fitz said, “you are never going to get to the point where you can raise the ‘Mission accomplished' banner.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- $17B remedy for VA pitched
- Defense workers with security clearance owed millions in back taxes, GAO finds
- Jury picked for trial of former Virginia governor, wife
- ‘Pawn Stars’ store owner plans nearby shopping plaza
- Obama mulls large-scale move on immigration
- Powerful tornado surprises area near Boston
- House bill lets airlines advertise pre-tax fares
- Deal to improve veterans’ health care costs $17B
- Ebola only a plane ride away from U.S.
- Medicare finances improve as health care inflation slows, trustees say
- Cellphone users can soon declare freedom from wireless carriers