Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

December 6, 2011

The billion dollar laugh: Arizona spy towers coming again

Arizona spy towers were one billion dollars of laughs, and the new ones have a $1.5 billion price tag

By Brenda Norrell
Censored News
Arivaca spy tower aka 'billion dollar boondoggle'
Photo Brenda Norrell
SOMEWHERE ON THE BORDER -- Homeland Security decided that wasting $1 billion on the big spy towers flop in Arizona wasn't enough. Now, Homeland Security has decided to throw away another $1.5 billion for more border spy towers. (Yes, we get it. We understand it is just another big give away for Boeing and its good buddy, the Israeli defense contractor for Apartheid in Palestine, Elbit Systems.)

Well, actually the contract hasn't gone out for bid yet. That doesn't happen until January 2012. But that didn't stop Boeing from posting a job opening for those new spy towers, the Integrated Fixed Towers, in Tucson two weeks ago. The job post was for a technician based in Ajo, to work on those new spy towers replacing the Secure Borders Initiative boondoggle.

Tohono O'odham districts were asked to approve
this new US spy tower on their sovereign lands
during Nov. 2011.
Already, the Tohono O'odham districts have been asked to approve new US spy towers on their sovereign lands.

Elbit is pitching itself again for the job. Elbit is also leaking a few secrets, as profiteers do. Elbit, the Israeli defense contractor, brags that it provided a large drone on the southern border of the US and Mexico.

Promoting itself in November, Elbit said, "A leading supplier of UAS, Elbit Systems of America was one of the first companies in the U.S. to fly a large UAS on the southern border as part of a lease project to the Border Patrol, proving the effectiveness of the UAS as a counterpart to border security missions."

During the previous billion dollar spy towers boondoggle, Boeing subcontracted Elbit. Just as Elbit did at the Palestine border wall, Elbit says it can now deliver all this at US borders: Sensors, radars and electro-optics combined with unattended ground sensors, unmanned air systems, unmanned ground vehicles, for detecting, tracking and  identifying.

Meanwhile, the US and Canada have been in secret negotiations for more security to be placed along the northern border.

The long hot summer

Now, don't get me wrong, the spy towers provide endless fun for those of us on the Arizona border. But billions seems like a lot for US taxpayers to cough up for our enjoyment.

Longhorn Grill near the border
Photo Brenda Norrell
A few summers ago, as an investigative journalist with a great deal of time on my hands, I undertook a summer of investigating these spy towers on the Arizona border. First of all, my friend and I had to wrap ourselves in wet towels, since the temperature was over 115, to keep from passing out in the un-airconditioned car. Then, the fun began.

There was a lot of laughter. "Did they really expect these spy towers to work on the Arizona border with Wi-fi, in these desert mountains of rock. Heck, I can't even get Wi-fi to work in a hotel with thick walls." And then, "Why didn't they just hire some 10-year-old computer nerds for the contract?"

So, we talked with the good folks at Arivaca about their spy tower. The tower was pointed at their homes, not at the border. They flew kites around it to mess with it. But then, Border Patrol officials said the spy towers didn't work anyway.

Endangered esser long-nosed bat in Sonoran Desert
Courtesy photo
Well, actually, first Border Patrol admitted that the spy towers really couldn't tell the difference between a cow, coyote or human when the sensors went off. More laughter: "That's a 10-4, Border Patrol in pursuit of the cow, make that the coyote that tripped the sensor." On the serious side, there was also some concern that the radar would mess with the endangered bats that pollinate the cacti. And really, what's a desert without cactus?

Well, in Arivaca, it was always a good day for a picnic or watching the hummingbirds, even if the spy towers weren't working.

Then, we drove over to Sasabe and asked the good folks there if they had any chance to comment on the spy tower coming to their little bordertown. (The big fat US booklet buried in the library said the comments were required by law.) "What spy tower?" said the good folks there at Sasabe. We wandered around some more and looked at a spy tower over by Sasabe. There wasn't much to do, no migrants in sight, so we hung around the Three Points convenience store where Border Patrol agents were buying their sugary and salty snacks and coffee.

Then, I documented some Border Patrol agents. The agents threw their snack wrappers and coffee cups on the ground, sat in their air-conditioned trucks and talked on their cell phones. Then, suddenly they would take off at high rates of speed, endangering the lives of everyone on the highway. Later, they would come back again, alone, for more snacks and talking on their cell phones.
Wackenhut G4S profitteer bus at Three Points for
snacks and hanging around
Photo Brenda Norrell
It was hot, really hot. The driver of the Wackenhut G4S bus was hanging around the Three Points store too, with no migrants in his bus. Wackenhut G4S, whose corporate headquarters are in London, has the contract to transport migrants from the border. Wackenhut figured out a way to double their profiteering on the Arizona border early in the game. Wackenhut split into two companies, Wackenhut Transportation with its buses, and GEO, a parasite private prison profiteer incarcerating a large number of migrants across the Southwest.
Arivaca Bird Sanctuary by Brenda Norrell

Back to the spy towers. As the days and heat stretched on, we went down to a bird sanctuary on the border, just some desert trees in an otherwise barren area, which the birds seemed to like. Sometimes a helicopter would fly overhead to harass us. Then, suddenly, two vehicles pulled up out there in the middle of nowhere. One was a town car and the driver was sporting  Las Vegas styled hair and the other was a guy in a little pickup truck. Both jumped out with their hunting dogs on leashes, spoke to one another, and rushed into the bird preserve and toward the border. (No explanation for these guys.)

As summer came to an end, and the suffocating heat gave way to the monsoon, the hard cracked earth transformed into little rivers in the desert. Our investigation of the spy towers ended.

It was a great deal of fun investigating the spy towers, but hardly worth the $1 billion taxpayers paid for it. Well, OK, when I heard about the new spy towers, I did smile thinking of how much fun it would be to investigate the next $1.5 billion spy towers.

Of course, the new spy towers are pretty much a secret so far, so don't tell too many people.

Read more:
Auditors blast DHS' $1.5 billion border plan:
Integrated Fixed Towers, Jan. 2011, announcement on the web:

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