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May 18, 2006
Engaging The Private Sector In Border Security

After decades of incompetence on the Rio Grande, the Bush administration aims to expand the effort to secure the southern border by engaging the private sector for real solutions. The New York Times reports that the Department of Homeland Security has sent out RFPs to the three main defese prime contractors for the building of physical and "virtual" barriers to deploy on the Mexican border:

The quick fix may involve sending in the National Guard. But to really patch up the broken border, President Bush is preparing to turn to a familiar administration partner: the nation's giant military contractors.

Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, three of the largest, are among the companies that said they would submit bids within two weeks for a multibillion-dollar federal contract to build what the administration calls a "virtual fence" along the nation's land borders.

Using some of the same high-priced, high-tech tools these companies have already put to work in Iraq and Afghanistan — like unmanned aerial vehicles, ground surveillance satellites and motion-detection video equipment — the military contractors are zeroing in on the rivers, deserts, mountains and settled areas that separate Mexico and Canada from the United States.

It is a humbling acknowledgment that despite more than a decade of initiatives with macho-sounding names, like Operation Hold the Line in El Paso or Operation Gate Keeper in San Diego, the federal government has repeatedly failed on its own to gain control of the land borders.

Not all of the reasons for failure have been execution; a lot of the failure stems from a lack of political will for success in closing off the influx of cheap labor. After 9/11, that much has changed, and the demand for a permanent solution to the lack of credible security has now made innovation much more politically palatable.

As Eric Lipton explains, the new Secure Borders initiative does not seek to simply buy technology from defense firms, but to create a brand-new philosophy of border security. The contract will ask the eventually winner to determine how best to integrate personnel, technology, and at least some significant amount of actual fencing to produce an efficient and effective barrier to illegal entry. This represents a long-overdue paradigm shift by the government. People have complained about how we sent a man to the moon but still cannot stop illegal immigration. The difference is that we allowed private innovation and for-profit efforts to fuel that seemingly impossible task, and now the Bush administration wants to harness that same proven energy for this daunting goal.

Will this please everyone? I highly doubt it. We shall hear an outcry over $600 toilet seats and $800 hammers all over again, and people will rightly be skeptical of any program that adopts the defense procurement regime. However, we have seen what happens when we shut out the private sector from large projects and allow the government to handle it as a monopoly. We spend decades and trillions of dollars, and we don't even wind up with a toilet seat and a hammer to show for it.

The border has had every other effort thrown at it in order to secure the US against illegal entry, and so far none of the expensive government programs have worked. It's long past time to use the leverage of the contract and profit motive to get the best minds involved in a complete rethinking of the approach to security.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 18, 2006 6:20 AM

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