Friday, September 22, 2006

Keeping the border safe for defense-contractor profits

by Floyd J. McKay

In these parts, cheek-by-jowl with the Canadian border, a few hardy survivalists dig in against an attack of black helicopters manned by foreigners working for the United Nations in cooperation with the sneaky Canadians.

Here in sophisticated Bellingham, we call them cranks.

But wait, they may be right after all, and they seem to have encouragement from that most revered of institutions, the Department of Homeland Security, not to mention the White House.

I speak of the Secure Border Initiative Net (SBInet in gov-speak), which has our major defense contractors drooling at the easy money ahead. A contract for $2.5 billion will be awarded to one of the big defense consortiums later this month — and that will lead to more, and more, and after a while it could turn into real money.

SBInet is a system of whiz-bang electronic surveillance all along the border, with thousands of sensors triggering remote-control cameras monitored by bored security personnel; unmanned aircraft and high-altitude balloons may figure into the picture.

Imagine the surprise of an ordinary Canadian black bear, peeing in the woods, as bears are wont to do, only to find she has triggered an alarm and is now on live television! Call in the choppers.

Electronic surveillance is not new to our borders — forms of it have been used for years, with modest success at best. Smugglers have always found a way, and doubtless will with the SBInet as well. As long as there are addicts on both sides of our borders, drugs will continue to flow both north and south. Illegal immigrants as well.

We will spend billions more to gain a marginal advance in border protection.

If you wonder who benefits and who is really pushing this system, turn your Web browser to any financial publication or defense contractor. Homeland Security is the new gold standard in the field.

Since it was created from the merger of 22 agencies in 2003, DHS has nearly tripled its annual procurement spending, to $10 billion in 2005. A bipartisan congressional investigation called many of the contracts wasteful and mismanaged.

But the agency will continue to award big contracts, as Americans buy into any gimcrack that will make them feel safer. Democrats will be as wasteful as Republicans have been, because no one dares turn down any proposal related to security.

"U.S. border security looks like another rainmaker for the big defense contractor," says Barron's. "Many of the technologies that make you a successful aerospace contractor would also make you a successful homeland-security contractor," the aerospace industry's trade association told a McClatchy Newspapers reporter.

One of the "technologies" already at work is lobbying Congress — a skill the defense industry has refined to an art. And, yes, Boeing is in the race, and Washington politicos may be expected to push for it to be selected.

Defense contractors need wars or rumors of wars to deliver dividends to investors and keep executives in high clover, and, with the Iraq war perhaps the last "shock and awe" for a while at least, it is the rumors of war (i.e., terrorism and its prospect) that will drive the industry. As Republicans ramp up the fear of terror and hapless Democrats strive to prove they can be as tough, there is no end in sight.

A motley band of al-Qaida and wannabes is doing to the United States what the Reagan administration did to the Soviet Union, goading us into pouring more and more money into arms and armies, which in the case of the Soviet Union resulted in its bankruptcy and dissolution.

That won't happen here, of course; we are too rich and too united a nation.

But we pour billions into war and rumors of war at significant cost to other massive needs, ranging from education to health care to infrastructure.

Set aside such "liberal feel-good" ideas as day care for working mothers and health clinics for poor people and just look at "bricks and mortar," always a favorite of conservatives. America needs $1.6 trillion just to fix failing bridges, tunnels, dams and water systems, the American Society of Civil Engineers warns. We fall behind daily, as we ramp up the fancy cameras along the Canadian border.

Infrastructure projects are more job-intensive than defense, and the jobs are in every small town and region, unlike concentrated defense jobs. Bricks and mortar, not guns; we already have more arms than the rest of the world combined. Can't we be governed by common sense, not fear?



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