When Robert Lee Maril first caught wind of a huge security project slated for the U.S.-Mexico border, he smelled a skunk of epic proportions.
Several years later, he's still amazed at how defense contractors managed to fleece American taxpayers yet again—this time for a project that turned out to be a $1 billion flop.
This monumental government failure is chronicled at infuriating length in Maril's new book, The Fence: National Security, Public Safety, and Illegal Immigration Along the U.S.-Mexico Border.
Maril is a sociology professor and founding director of the Center on Diversity and Inequality Research at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. Before moving to Greenville, he spent nearly two decades in South Texas, where he witnessed other border security schemes that quietly collapsed after vast sums were spent.
The latest border project, pitched as an electronic-surveillance adjunct to the physical border fence, first came to his attention in 2005. His suspicion was immediate.
"The more I heard about the construction of the fence and who was going to be involved, the more concerned I was. I knew some of the players. I knew some of the problems.
"What immediately arose," he says, "was that the second-largest bureaucracy in the land—the Department of Homeland Security—was intending to build a fence that was mandated by Congress. I knew that would involve the (U.S.) Border Patrol. I also knew, because of working with the Border Patrol (Maril's earlier book, Patrolling Chaos, focused on the agency), that they have problems in planning and carrying out projects."
He was also aware of the cozy relationship between government officials and a security industry hungry for fat contracts. "Along the border, there is a long, long history among contractors and public officials of graft and corruption," says Maril.
In The Fence, Maril describes the security juggernaut unleashed by the George W. Bush administration after Sept. 11. That massive campaign included the creation of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, which would sweep no fewer than 22 agencies under its mantle.
From what Maril calls an "unwieldy bureaucracy" emerged an even more unwieldy plan: "After a series of miserable failures," he writes, "DHS eventually birthed the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), designed as 'a comprehensive multi-year plan to secure America's borders and to reduce illegal immigration.'"
That plan would include both a high-tech electronic surveillance component—the virtual "SBInet"—as well as traditional steel fencing. Contractors, including Honeywell International Inc., were soon battling for a cut of the action.
In one priceless passage, Maril writes about how Honeywell flew him to Clearwater, Fla., so he could share his expertise with a fidgety group of company engineers and marketing honchos. He'd hoped to explain how a single, high-tech security approach was a particularly poor fit for the human complexities of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Company officials, however, proved far more interested in profit margins. Indeed, the executives foresaw the initial $250 million contract for building a virtual fence ballooning into far heftier sums—all for warmed-over technology that would simply be revamped to fit the border project.
He might as well have been talking to a wall. "Over the weekend," he writes, "it becomes clear they do not seek a highly sophisticated, whiz-bang technological solution. ... Instead, Honeywell simply desires the cheapest engineering solution its best engineers can patch together from their existing, off-the-shelf inventory.
"Honeywell can then assign a price to their product, the border fence," Maril continues, "based upon their assessment of how much the customer, the feds, will pay. For very little corporate effort and cost, they may make outlandish profits."
Although Honeywell eventually dropped its pursuit of the contract, Maril's conjecture nonetheless proved dismayingly correct.
But The Fence is far more than just the chronicle of yet another government project gone awry. Rather, it's an anguished tome about the surreal disconnect between this industry-government cabal and the people who actually live on the border, attempt to cross the border, and are charged with guarding the border.
In our phone conversation, Maril offers a head-shaking example of that disconnect. "At the same time that contractors were testifying before Congress that the virtual wall had a few malfunctions but was going to be finished within a reasonable time limit," he says, "Border Patrol agents I knew were telling me just the opposite—that it didn't function properly, that it only functioned in certain ideal weather conditions, and that even in those weather conditions, it didn't really work that well."
According to the Border Patrol's own records, he says, "the virtual wall was a miserable failure, and it did nothing but get worse, even though they testified to Congress that everything was fine."
In the end, it boils down to a government system that exists on a plane far detached from reality—with SBInet as its poster child. "Any border fence can be no less than a symbol in concrete, steel, microchips and fiber optics of all that is right and wrong with contemporary immigration policy," Maril writes in his book. "Regardless of the engineers, there is a human face to this story that cannot be ignored."
Yet any human story must also be one of values and priorities, and about how money desperately needed for so many other things—from addressing poverty and enriching education to creating a workable health-care system—is so cavalierly and repeatedly wasted in this craven dance between government and its industry cronies.
Ultimately, the SBInet contract was awarded to Boeing rather than Honeywell, albeit with the same, predictable outcome: Nearly $1 billion was spent on a project deemed a near-total failure. In January, it was finally cancelled by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Without missing a beat, the border-security machine has already embarked upon a new endeavor: called the Alternative (Southwest) Border Technology plan, it totes an initial cost of some $750 million.
To longtime border watchers like Maril, it's just the same old pig with a new dash of lipstick. "My only question with the new plan is: Are they going to do the same thing all over again?" he says. "After 11 or 12 years, they're still saying they didn't get (the technology) quite right. Now they're going to do something 'new'—and we're supposed to trust them. I have a real problem with that."