Boeing’s Billion Dollar Border Flop
Signs that the troubled aircraft maker had management issues were revealed but ignored in its "electronic fence" fiasco
This isn’t exactly a SpyTalk story, but it does deal with intelligence, of both the mental and aquisitional kind.
I thought it worthwhile to bring it up Boeing’s notorious “electronic fence” flop in light of the latest revelations of the company’s reckless 737 Max management—and the fact that it holds billions of dollars worth of national security contracts, including for intelligence systems, with the federal government.
The record of Boeing's colossal failure to build a reliable surveillance system along the U.S.-Mexico border, which cost taxpayers at least $1 billion in the end, was well reported back in the day but seems to have been forgotten, even amid the superheated stalemate on immigration on Capitol Hill.
The sad saga of the “virtual fence” project— a high-tech network of cameras, lighting, sensors, and technology designed to intercept illegal border crossings—began in 2005, when the Department of Homeland Security invited Boeing to build it as a key element of its Secure Border Initiative, “a new integrated system of personnel, infrastructure, technology, and rapid response to secure the northern and southern land borders of the United States.”
To make a long story short, it was in trouble almost from the beginning. In 2008 investigators from the Government Accountability Office ambled down to the border and came away deeply unimpressed.
“When the GAO visited in June the site of Project 28, a 28-mile strip of land at which a prototype for SBInet is under use by the border patrol, the system was hardly functioning, Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice for the GAO,” told CBS News
."It took us 45 minutes just to get the system up and running," he said.
“Additionally,” CBS News reported, “radars were thrown off, camera range was limited, and the ability to classify items under surveillance was limited, Stana said. He said the prototype ‘did not meet expectations,’ but that it was hard to hold the contractors accountable because any expectations in place were ‘loosely worded.’"
In venerable Washington talk, that’s called blame-shifting. Everyone failed, so no one’s held accountable.
In 2011, the Obama administration pulled the plug. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said “she had concluded that the original concept of the project, to develop a single technology that could be used across the entire border, was not viable,” according to the New York Times’ account. “Boeing had built a complex system of sensors, radars and cameras mounted on towers that was supposed to lead border agents to the exact location of illegal crossers. But the system functioned inconsistently in the rough terrain along much of the border.”
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to meet our border technology needs,” Napolitano said in her statement.
Irony abounds. The handling of the issue 13 years ago will sound familiar to anyone following today’s political sumo wrestling over the border.
Officials knew early on that the electronic fence was a bust, the Times reported, but “officials moved slowly to cancel the project because it had been ensnared in the contentious debate over border security. Many Republican lawmakers have accused the Obama administration of being lax on enforcement, and they have said they would not consider an overhaul of immigration laws that President Obama supports until the border is tighter.”
The thread that connects the failure of Boeing’s electronic fence to its current problems with the 737 Max: a management change from engineers to bean counters.
According to Peter Robison, an award winning investigative reporter for Bloomberg and Bloomberg Businessweek, the seeds of destruction were planted in Boeing’s acquisition of rival aircraft maker McDonnell Douglas.
“The 1997 acquisition of McDonnell Douglas had brought hordes of cutthroat managers, trained in the win-at-all-costs ways of defense contracting, into Boeing’s ranks in the misty Puget Sound,” Robison wrote in his 2021 book, Flying Blind: The 737 Max Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing. “It was ‘hunter killer assassins’ meeting ‘Boy Scouts,’ in the words of a federal mediator who considered the partnership doomed.”
Boeing dominates U.S. missile defenses, among many other military hardware and computer systems. Meanwhile, Chinese spies have demonstrated an ability to penetrate Boeing and steal its secrets. Maybe they know more than we do about the chances they’ll work as promised.
SpyTalk is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.