‘We didn’t want to get stuck with a lemon.” That’s what Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said to a House committee last month. He was referring to the “virtual fence” planned for the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada. If the entire project goes as badly as the 28-mile prototype, it could turn out to be one of the most expensive lemons in history, projected to cost $8 billion by 2011.
Boeing, the company that landed the contract — the largest ever awarded by the Department of Homeland Security — announced this week that it will finally test the fence after months of delay due to computer problems. Heavy rains have confused its remote-controlled cameras and radar, and the sensors can’t tell the difference between moving people, grazing cows or rustling bushes.
But this debacle points to more than faulty technology. It exposes the faulty logic of the Bush administration’s vision of a hollowed-out government run everywhere possible by private contractors.
According to this radical vision, contractors treat the state as an ATM, withdrawing massive contracts to perform core functions like securing borders and interrogating prisoners, and making deposits in the form of campaign contributions. As President Bush’s former budget director, Mitch Daniels, put it: “The general idea — that the business of government is not to provide services but to make sure that they are provided — seems self-evident to me.”
The flip side of the Daniels directive is that the public sector is rapidly losing the ability to fulfill its most basic responsibilities — and nowhere more so than in the Department of Homeland Security, which, as a Bush creation, has followed the ATM model since its inception.