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J’accuse, Heritage!

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June 6, 2008

My post highlighting the privacy problems and massive cost of the virtual fence appears to have touched a nerve at the Heritage Foundation. Dr. James Carafano, who has been blogging from the border for the last week, wrote yesterday, “I don’t know if the person who wrote the ACLU blog post has ever been to the border, but his or her criticisms read like many of those who have not…”

First, to clarify: I am a he, though I appreciate Carafano’s open-mindedness. Second, not only do ACLU affiliates in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and San Diego and Imperial Counties protect liberty on the border every day (as do our affiliates on the northern border), but I had the opportunity to tour the southern border with a group of them and a retired border patrol officer in April. I saw many of the same problems and heard many of the same frustrations that Carafano reports, and I certainly agree with him that there is no single solution to difficulties that we face there, both in maintaining security and, hopefully, in respecting the human rights and dignity of all people. Unfortunately, our nation’s track record is bad on both.

Now, as far as the virtual fence is concerned, Carafano accuses me of “simply quoting some convenient criticisms.” This is also known as citing your sources, but either way, the consensus among both Washington policymakers and the men and women on the ground is that the test run of the virtual fence, known as Project 28, has been an utter waste of money. No doubt this is partially because Boeing, the vendor responsible for the technological aspects of the project, did not take into account many of the realities of the environmental landscape and the challenges faced by the border patrol. Instead, Boeing grabbed older technology off the shelf and repackaged it to sell to the Department of Homeland Security (which bought it hook, line and sinker using almost $1 billion in taxpayer dollars). Rather than hold Boeing accountable for this failure, DHS renewed the company’s contract last month.

The real question here — and one that Carafano has yet to address — is why are we throwing good money after bad on the virtual fence? Carafano is thoughtful enough about security matters to know that we can’t just spend our way out of a problem, and he has pointed that out in this blog series. But how many times do we have to try a bad idea before we admit it’s a stupid idea?

Many of the topographical challenges to border surveillance, like the deep canyons that run through the Arizona desert, are unlikely to change (at least without a major investment in dynamite), so it is unlikely that the virtual fence will ever yield the kind of results that could be counted as success. I won’t belabor the old metaphor of lipstick on a pig, but this pig carries a hefty price tag — both in financial costs to American taxpayers and the cost of border residents’ privacy. Carafano rightly points out that Project 28 is one intervention among many, and that ramped-up security alone is not the answer. But shouldn’t we discard elements of our border strategy that are proven failures, especially ones that that put millions of Americans that live near the border under the constant gaze of federal government watch towers?

There are a lot of areas where the ACLU and the Heritage Foundation can find common ground, especially around protecting individuals’ privacy rights. But costly mass surveillance programs, like the virtual fence and Real ID (the national ID program that, bafflingly, Carafano has supported, despite the fact that Republicans and Democrats alike criticize it as the most egregious example of federal unfunded mandates – paging Newt Gingrich!) serve neither security nor civil liberties. As we debate solutions, it is important to remember that the border is not a Constitution-free zone. We look forward to continuing this open dialogue with our friends at Heritage, and all Americans who care about these vital issues.

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