WASHINGTON - The Bush administration outlined plans Thursday to begin operating portions of a high-tech "virtual fence" along the Southwest border later this year and strongly disputed news reports that a 28-mile pilot project to test the technology was largely a failure.
Top officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection also said they're on track to complete hundreds of miles of traditional fencing by the end of the year. But they acknowledged that disputes with Texas landowners could endanger their timetable.
Customs and Border Protection, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, is charged with overseeing the construction of 670 miles of pedestrian and vehicle barriers to comply with a two-year-old congressional mandate.
Congress also has authorized the virtual fence - an array of sensors, cameras and other high-tech surveillance - to complement the physical barriers.
Appearing before a congressional subcommittee, Border Protection commissioner Ralph Basham and other agency officials sought to assure lawmakers that the projects were moving forward despite recent disclosures that the pilot project in Arizona, known as Project 28, was riddled with flaws.
Basham, saying the press accounts were wrong, acknowledged that the $20 million program had sustained early setbacks.
But he said the project rebounded after the contractor, Boeing, spent its own money to correct most of the deficiencies.
The program was certified by Homeland Security in February and has surpassed original expectations, Basham said.
The project includes towers with cameras and radar designed to spot border crossers and convey the data to a command center miles away.
An official with the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, testified that Boeing developed Project 28 "with very little input" from the Border Patrol.
The official, Richard Stana, also told the panel that completing the fence by December will "be challenging" because of landowner disputes and logistical issues.