reductions they say make conditions unsafe for prison workers, inmates and the community outside the prison walls. They're also
protesting the treatment of a combat veteran fired last week from the prison.
The cuts are part of the transformation of the Leavenworth penitentiary from a maximum-security to a medium-security prison.
Kevin Nikes of the American Federation of Government Employees says about 145 positions will be cut. He says the prison is staffed by a ``skeleton crew'' that struggles to prevent violence amongst inmates.
A spokesman for the penitentiary could not be reached for comment.
Homeland Security Case A Harbinger for Pentagon
The legal battle over the Defense Department's plan to overhaul its civil service system begins Tuesday, and the outcome could reverberate through the government for decades.
What the federal courts decide will go a long way toward diminishing or accelerating the Bush administration's goal of curbing union rights, streamlining disciplinary procedures and revamping how federal employees are paid.
The case also might set boundaries on how far the government can go in citing national security as a basis for reshaping its career workforce. The Bush administration has invoked the war against terrorism as a primary reason for upending long-established workplace rules for 650,000 Defense employees to reinforce management's clout.
That argument, however, did not prevail in a similar case involving the Department of Homeland Security. In August, U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer blocked a change in work rules at Homeland Security, saying they put unions "on quicksand." She found that the department's planned system fell short of guaranteeing bargaining rights because Homeland Security could override any provision in a union contract by issuing a department-wide directive.
Homeland Security has asked a federal appeals court to overturn Collyer's decision.
When asked about that case, Bush administration officials decline to go into specifics but express optimism that the Pentagon can prevail because it has a different statutory footing.
As in the Homeland Security case, the legal briefs focus on the complex, sometimes bewildering federal labor relations system and on the rights afforded employees facing disciplinary action.
Compensation changes, which probably rate higher in interest for many federal employees, are on the back burner. The Defense unions are not challenging the effort to more rigorously link pay to job performance.
The Pentagon asked Congress to overhaul work rules for Defense civil service employees in April 2003, after lawmakers created the Department of Homeland Security and agreed to more flexible personnel rules for those employees.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pushed for new work rules, saying the current system slows recruitment of talented employees and sometimes forces the department to hire contractors or assign military personnel to tasks that should be handled by civil service employees. In making the changes that Rumsfeld wanted, Congress gave the department a green light to revise its policies toward unions.
The labor relations section of the law creating the National Security Personnel System angered Defense unions. When the Pentagon published its regulation to create the NSPS on Nov. 1, 2005, a union coalition signaled that it would contest the new labor rules in court.
On Tuesday, the coalition, led by the American Federation of Government Employees, and the Justice Department are scheduled to appear before Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Joseph Goldberg , a lawyer at AFGE, will be representing the unions, and Jeffrey M. Smith , Joseph W. LoBue and other federal lawyers will be representing the Pentagon.
In court papers, the unions contend that the Defense Department is trying to gut their rights to negotiate binding contracts on behalf of the 350,000 workers they represent.
The NSPS regulation "totally eliminates the statutory right to collective bargaining. It allows the secretary to ban bargaining merely by writing a document, called an 'issuance,' " the unions argue.
The unions list a dozen reasons why the NSPS regulation has gone beyond the intent of Congress or will be flawed. For example, the unions claim a proposed in-house board to hear labor-management disputes will not be seen as independent.
The Justice Department, in its filing, rejected the union claims as "uniformly without merit."
The Pentagon has adhered to the meaning of the NSPS law, which allows the Pentagon "to implement the system without securing the agreement of labor organizations, and mandates that the new system will be binding on employee representatives and supersede all collective bargaining agreements," Justice said.
If the Homeland Security case is any guide, a resolution in the Defense case might take months to reach.
Fire Fighters Say DoD Takes Step Backwards in Implementation of NSPS
The United DoD Workers Coalition (UDWC), a group of labor unions that includes the IAFF, has filed a lawsuit against aspects of NSPS that affect collective bargaining. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for January 24. UDWC maintains that the Pentagon has not included its members in the collaboration process to create the new system.
The number of employees to first enter the new pay-for-performance system on April 30 has been reduced from 65,000 to 11,000. The next group will go into the system October 1 and the third group will enter in January 2007. DoD is still identifying which employees will fall into these two groups.
UDWC calls the starting 11,000 employees "nothing more than another demonstration project." The American Federation of Government Employees says the setback is an indication that DoD is not prepared to implement NSPS.
Commenting on DoD's actions, IAFF 16th District Vice President Jim Johnson states, "While this step backwards on DoD's part is positive from one perspective, it also demonstrates that DoD's development process is inherently flawed. DoD listened to contractors it engaged to develop NSPS, and sought guidance from anti-worker "think tanks" while generally disregarding input from employees, management groups and employee representatives. Now they want to go back and spend more tax dollars and redevelop portions of NSPS."
Picketers target U.S.P.
By JOHN RICHMEIER, Times Staff Writer
Picketers and their signs were scattered Thursday across the sidewalk in front of the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, and they were scheduled to return today.
Off-duty employees, family members, retirees and other supporters conducted an informational picket to voice concern about more than one issue, including reductions in positions at the federal prison.
These reductions have left the institution “with less than what would be bare-bones staffing,” said Kevin Nikes, president of Local 919 of the American Federation of Government Employees, a union at the USP.
Many of the picketers’ signs also made reference to the termination of a war veteran. Nikes alleged the probationary employee was terminated after he did something in the same manner he had been trained.
The former employee, Brandin Raney, was among the picketers Thursday morning.
Nikes, who’s been at the USP for about 15 years, said he’s never seen the prison in the turmoil like it is now.
Nikes said the frequency of violence at the prison has been increasing the last four or five months, and he believes this is due to shortages in staff.
He said the reductions in personnel affects the safety of staff members, inmates and the community.
What led to an inmate’s escape in 1993, Nikes said, were the same things that are being done now.
“We want the community to be aware of what’s going on right in their backyards,” Nikes said.
Jack Fox, USP public information officer, said reductions in positions are the result of the penitentiary changing from a high-security prison to housing medium-security inmates.
He said the same number of employees are not required and staffing levels at the prison are safe.
With a few exceptions, Fox said, all of the more than 1,700 medium-security inmates who will be housed at the prison are already in place.
As part of the change, he said, plans called for the prison to lose 101 positions. He said the prison is about halfway through this process.
Fox said the reductions are being handled through attrition.
Nikes said the prison still handles things the same way no matter if it’s high security or medium security.
“The policies are the same,” he said. “There are a few specifics that change.”
He said there’s no way the USP, which is more than 100 years old, can be staffed the same way as some of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ newer, lower security buildings because their designs are tremendously different.
Raney was said to have 10 days left in his probationary period when he was fired.
Nikes said the reason given for Raney’s termination was excessive use of force, but he said the former employee did the same thing that is shown in training films used throughout the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Nikes said there’s been no retraining, and staff members need to know if guidelines at the prison are different from what they have been in the past.
“The staff honestly do not know what to do at this point,” he said.
Raney’s father, Larry, who works at the USP, said the incident that resulted in the termination concerned a shakedown of an inmate.
As signs held by picketers noted, Raney is a veteran. He served in Iraq and was awarded the Bronze Star, Nikes said.
Fox acknowledged that Raney was terminated but said he couldn’t discuss it because of privacy issues.
Nikes said picketing began in front of the USP at 6 a.m. Thursday and would continue through 6 p.m.
He said picketers would be in front of the USP during the same hours today.
Nikes said the number of picketers varied depending on the time of day. He said some employees were joining the picket as they came off duty.
He said there were as many as 90 people Thursday morning.
Fox stressed that because employees participated in the picket while off duty, there had been no resulting work stoppage at the USP.
Picketers target U.S.P.
Picketers and their signs were scattered Thursday across the sidewalk in front of the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, and they were scheduled to return today.
‘Street soldiers’ attract attention
Anyone who happens to be driving in the vicinity of Broadway and Seneca streets on Wednesday evenings or Sunday mornings may see an unusual sight — a man dragging a cross from one end of Faith Evangelistic Center’s sidewalk to the other.
Council to help fort retain gains
A new governor’s council will help to “protect and grow” the gains Fort Leavenworth and other military installations in Kansas made under the federal government’s recent BRAC process, according to one local member of the council.
Commission hears of sign thefts
Leavenworth County Public Works Director Bill Green informed the county commission on Thursday of the theft of 78 traffic signs located throughout the county. Green said he believed the thefts were based on the current price of aluminum, and not just a stunt.
New timeline set for facilities study
A steering committee organized to study the facilities of the Leavenworth public school system won’t start meeting until late summer.
Police investigate shooting
Leavenworth police are investigating a shooting incident that was reported early Thursday morning at the Woodland Village Apartments, a police spokesman said.
Leavenworth Prison workers protest staff cuts
Picket also targets termination of employee
By John Taylor
Saturday, January 21, 2006
Leavenworth — Dozens of union employees, retired workers and supporters staged two days of picketing outside the U.S. Penitentiary here, protesting staff reductions and the treatment of a combat veteran fired last week from the prison.
Kevin Nikes, president of Local 919 of the American Federation of Government Employees, said union members at the penitentiary were upset with staff reductions they say are making conditions unsafe for prison workers, inmates and, ultimately, the community outside the prison walls. The local represents more than 400 prison workers who live in an area that stretches from St. Joseph, Mo., to Lawrence, he said.
The cuts follow transformation of the Leavenworth penitentiary late last year from a maximum-security to medium-security prison.
Nikes said about 100 positions were being cut. “As an employee they won’t allow me to tell you specific positions,” he said.
About 45 jobs already have been pared.
“Quite honestly, we’re running less than a skeleton crew inside here at times,” Nikes said from the picket line in front of the prison’s main entrance. “The frequency of violence is on the rise inside, and we feel it’s related to that. You’ve got much less supervision of the inmates.”
He said prison officials want staffing at Leavenworth to be more in line with that of other medium-security prisons, but he said lower staffing levels won’t work because Leavenworth’s old-style prison configuration is so different from what he called new “cookie-cutter” medium-security prisons.
“The cell houses, the living areas for inmates, are small (in the new prisons). You walk into it, you can see every cell door from standing in one area,” he said, noting that’s not the case where a cell house stretches down long corridors at Leavenworth.
Jack Fox, executive assistant and a spokesman for the penitentiary, was out of the office Friday and unavailable for comment.
An incident last week pushed the union past the boiling point: A correctional officer who was within 10 days of losing his probationary employee status was fired.
The officer, Brandin Raney, is a decorated combat veteran and the son of a longtime union advocate at the prison, Nikes said.
Raney was performing a pat search on an inmate, Nikes said, when the inmate “made an aggressive move” and Raney “put him on the floor.”
The incident, captured on videotape, was by the book, but prison officials decided to fire Raney nonetheless, Nikes said.
“All this kid did was exactly what he was trained to do and exactly what we still train people to do, and they called him in and terminated him over it,” Nikes said.
The firing made two impressions on union leaders: That prison officials were getting back at Raney’s father for his past union activities and the rules that correctional officers have followed for years may no longer apply.
Larry Raney, a past union president, has represented members in grievances against the prison “that have cost them a lot of money,” Nikes said.
“We’ve got to kind of wonder, is this the agency’s way to get back at his dad? How do you hurt a person worse than by attacking his family?” Nikes said.
Because Brandin Raney was a probationary employee — all new employees with the Bureau of Prisons serve a one-year probation — there’s little the union can do to intervene. Union officials have contacted officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs to determine whether they can intercede on Raney’s behalf.
Nikes said Dudley “Duke” Terrill, who became warden at Leavenworth in August, hadn’t been responsive to the union’s concerns, so the union was hoping it could get some support in the court of public opinion.
It seemed to be working Thursday and Friday. Cars whizzed past the prison honking horns at the protesters, who held signs that read “Remove Warden, Not Vets” and “Public Safety or Budget Cuts?”
“We hope that if there’s enough people that express concern, maybe they would change their minds and reconsider and readdress some of these issues,” Nikes said.
Union Calls for D.C. Fire and EMS Chief to Step Down
WASHINGTON - The president of the union representing emergency medical services workers is calling on D.C. Fire and EMS chief Adrian Thompson to step down, charging there's been a failure to address problems with the emergency treatment of New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum.
Rosenbaum was found lying in front of a Northwest home. He had been attacked and died two days later.
On WTOP's The Politics Program with Mark Plotkin, Kenneth Lyons, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3721, says Thompson is trying to avoid dealing with the issue.
AFGE is the union for the city's civilian paramedics and EMTs. The city's fire department employs firefighters who are crosstrained as EMTs and paramedics.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, who chairs the council's Judiciary committee that oversees D.C. Fire and EMS, says an independent investigation is needed to get to the truth.
"I don't want this to go the way of other investigations and go slowly and lose interest. It will happen as quickly as I can make it happen, or else I will have a hearing," Mendelson said on WTOP.
Mayor Tony Williams on Thursday ordered the inspector general to investigate. Mendelson has been asked to consider having his council committee hold its own hearing.
Documents from the night of the attack indicate that Rosenbaum was seriously hurt and should have been given higher emergency priority.
"I think that the individual did an assessment of the patient's mental status, failed to understand what he had assessed in that mental status and then assigned the inappropriate transport code," Lyons said on WTOP.
EMS officials last week defended their actions as appropriate. But a department spokesman says the city has to deal with the problem of overcrowded emergency rooms.
It took an ambulance 23 minutes to reach the scene of Rosenbaum's attack, and it was another 25 minutes before Rosenbaum was taken to Howard University Hospital across town. Once there, he was left in the emergency room for an hour.
"Mr. Rosenbaum died either because he had an injury that could not be easily detected, or he died because an individual or several individuals were sloppy in the field or at the hospital," Mendelson said.
Mendelson says he does not believe the entire emergency response system is broken, but is putting together a panel to see whether EMS should be taken out of the purview of the Fire Department, and made into a separate, third service.
"As far as the third service, there are a lot of big cities in this country that have chosen not to go to a third service. Why? It's not clear that the third service is the answer. I'm looking at what the alternatives are. At Kenny's recommendation, we'll be putting together a blue ribbon commission that will make some recommendations with regard to the third service," Mendelson said.
Changes in personnel policy creates confusion, to say least
January 22, 2006 12:50 am
IWANTED TO bring you up to date on items that have been hanging on since last year.
The first concerns our friends at the Department of Defense who are trying to get their National Security Personnel System implemented. As you know, I've written about this situation on many occasions; it doesn't took any better now than it did before.
The unions representing employees have put the issue in front of a judge, challenging rules that were supposed to go into effect Feb. 1, 2006.
A hearing is scheduled in federal court next week. The union is asking the court to halt implementation fearing that this new system will strip employees of their right to bargain and receive representation.
In the meantime, DoD management is looking for ways to get the message across in a clearer, more understandable way. Apparently there's still a lot of confusion about how this new personnel system is going to work.
Because of the court hearing, most of the scheduled training has been put on hold. It looks like the management team at DoD still has a lot of work to do in selling this program and making sure everyone understands what they are supposed to do when it is implemented.
We'll see what the court says. I have a feeling things are still a long way from being resolved. April is the latest date DoD is throwing out there for bringing employees into the new system, but with the court case still unsettled, anything can happen.
Federal travel is also big news in 2006. If you remember, the General Services Administration had talked about new requirements for travel card users. Federal agencies are now required to check the credit worthiness of all new applicants for government travel cards before issuing cards to employees. Each agency was responsible for setting up its own program, with guidance from GSA.
The idea is to reduce and eliminate fraud and abuse at the agency level. When I mentioned this last time, I received many comments from federal travelers about agencies not providing timely checks when they file their travel vouchers. This seemed to be a much bigger problem than abuse of travel cards. I hope things have improved.
Finally, if you use your vehicle to travel you will be spending more. GSA dropped the mileage rate in January to 44.5 cents per mile. It had shot up to 48.5 cents per mile in September when gas prices hit the roof.
All good things must end! Drive safely.
Group releases incursion video
Minuteman Corps says they viewed Mexican soldiers across border
By Kenneth Todd Ruiz, Staff Writer
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
A civilian border patrol group released a video Friday they say shows Mexican soldiers crossing into U.S. territory.
The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps said the 2004 video is an example of the incursions made by the Mexican military during the past 10 years, first reported in the Daily Bulletin on Jan. 15.
"(Minuteman co-founder) Chris Simcox and others were in that area watching for people illegally crossing when they stumbled upon these Mexican soldiers on our side of the border," said Connie Hair, a spokeswoman for the group.
In the video, at least three men in military-style uniforms run from the border fence with automatic weapons toward a Humvee on the Mexican side of the border.
Hair said the incident happened at the border near the San Pedro River in Arizona.
The video appears to show the same event as captured by at least two cameras.
Simcox was at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday for the screening of a documentary about the border and was unavailable for comment.
According to Hair, Simcox encountered the uniformed men about 500 yards inside the U.S. border but was unable to capture footage until they had crossed back across a fence on the U.S. side of the border.
Since 1996, Mexican soldiers have crossed into the United States 216 times, according to a Department of Homeland Security, Customs and U.S. Border Protection document given to the Daily Bulletin.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Wednesday, however, played down reports of the incursions, saying most were a result of lost military personnel or drug runners dressed in military uniforms.
Border agents and law enforcement personnel interviewed during the past year for the Daily Bulletin's Beyond Borders project have described encounters with Mexican military.
"They're operating out of Mexico, and Mexico is not doing anything about it," said T.J. Bonner, union president of the National Border Patrol Council.
With border security a contentious issue on both sides, the U.S. government is motivated by political sensitivity to play down the reports, said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
"Obviously, they don't want to highlight border conflicts," Pitney said. "It's a tense situation, and high-profile conflicts would make the issue even more difficult."
Freddie Puckett, a civilian watching the border near Nogales, Ariz., said Friday he has witnessed Mexican military cross the border as recently as three weeks ago.
"I saw some Mexican Humvees, guys armed with machine guns," he said.
Bonner said the men in the Minuteman video are "definitely Mexican military" and clearly standing inside U.S. territory, which extends a ways past the fence.
But he said the video is not quite a "smoking gun."
"If they had come through the fence, had they gotten the camera working before, it would be a much more compelling video," he said.
Although the men are not wearing any readily identifiable insignia, a former Army counter-intelligence agent confirmed they were military after reviewing the footage Friday.
"If I had to testify in court, there is no question about it," said David DeBatto, the former agent. "That is a Mexican military unit."
At one point in the video, several of the uniformed men return to the fence in a Humvee truck with a visible serial number.
They approach the fence and converse in Spanish with Simcox and his group, who identify themselves as newspaper reporters.
One of the uniformed men tells them they are uncomfortable with being filmed and said they are there to watch the border.
"We are just working here," says the unidentified uniformed man in Spanish. "We are just watching the border fringe."
Rafael Laveaga, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., denied repeatedly this past week Mexico's military has crossed the border and said its protocol is to stay at least a mile away.
Bonner said the video refutes that statement.
"This video does show the Mexican government is lying when they say they tell their troops not to come within a mile within the border," he said.
Hair said Simcox sent the video in 2004 to former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, who never responded.
Minuteman Project back on front burner
By Brady McCombs
FOR THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR
The Minuteman Project will catapult itself back into the spotlight this weekend with a return to the border and a big-screen debut.
Today and Sunday, a group of 50 to 65 Minuteman civil defense corps volunteers from Arizona will patrol three to four miles of dirt road off Arizona 286 near Three Points, southwest of Tucson and 35 miles north of the border, said Stacey O'Connell, Minuteman Arizona director.
On Friday, Minuteman co-founder Chris Simcox was in Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival promoting the premiere of a documentary, Crossing Arizona, that features footage and interviews with Minuteman volunteers. The film — directed by Joseph Mathew — examines the complex issues of the border crisis.
The weekend patrol and movie debut are the first pair of activities for a group that plans to stay in the spotlight this year in an effort to keep illegal immigration on the tips of Americans' tongues.
In April, organizers are expecting an estimated 1,500 volunteers to participate in a month-long patrol at undecided border spots in Arizona, New Mexico, California and Texas, O'Connell said. Organizers will call on their volunteer corps again in October for a second month-long patrol.
A year after the group formed, O'Connell said the Minuteman philosophy and goals remain basically the same: to keep illegal immigrants from entering the country and pressure politicians to pass measures to slow the flow of entrants, estimated at 700,000 a year by the Pew Hispanic Center.
This year, Minuteman leaders are also asking volunteers to organize activities in their communities, such as protests of day-laborer sites.
"That's really the only way we can be successful — do what we do on the border and be active in our communities as well," O'Connell said.
The group's relationship with the Border Patrol remains shaky. While O'Connell said they informed the Border Patrol about their weekend patrol, Gustavo Soto, spokesman for the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol, said he was unaware of the plans.
Soto said the agency will respond to reports of illegal entrants from the group just as it does with any citizen report. Beyond that, he said there is no level of cooperation. The agency has concerns about Minuteman volunteers setting off sensors set by Border Patrol agents, and the members' ability to stay safe.
"We are the ones best-trained to take care of this activity," Soto said.
Soto disputes the Minuteman claim that the Border Patrol, which has 2,339 agents in the Tucson Sector, fails to do its job. He said arrests of illegal entrants were down 11 percent in 2005 from 2004 for the October-December period.
A union of Tucson Border Patrol agents, Local 2544 of the National Border Patrol Council, has a much less adversarial approach to the Minutemen. Mike Albon, union spokesman, said the volunteers didn't bother agents in past patrols.
"As long as they don't interfere with the normal operation, they can do their thing," Albon said.
Kat Rodriguez, community organizer with Derechos Humanos, a Tucson-based human rights group, said the Minuteman presence sends an ugly message, unintended or not.
"When you have people coming in from outside of our communities with a very myopic, ignorant rhetoric, it's not conducive to a healthy discussion about the issues," Rod- riguez said. "And it doesn't feel good to the people who live in those communities."
Wes Bramhall, president of Arizonans for Immigration Reform, supports the Minuteman Project efforts in Arizona.
"I think they're helping because the illegals know they are going to be there at certain times and it probably keeps some, not many but some, from coming," Bramhall said.
Minuteman leaders chose the Three Points site because of its position in a popular corridor for illegal immigrants, O'Connell said. They'll use this weekend's patrol to train new volunteers from the state.
Border sensors send alerts about trains and animals but rarely catch people
Republic Washington Bureau
Jan. 20, 2006 06:32 PM
WASHINGTON - U.S. Border Patrol agents are forced to waste time responding to alerts from sensors tripped by animals and passing trains instead of the illegal border crossers and drug smugglers they are designed to catch, a government audit says.
Less than 1 percent of the alerts lead to arrests, but officials maintain the technology still has value.
"Despite claims that (the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System) prevents (Office of Border Patrol) agents from having to respond to false alarms, the analysis indicates that OBP agents are spending many hours investigating legitimate activities, primarily because sensors cannot differentiate between illegal activity and legitimate events," according to the report by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General.
The government has spent more than $429 million since 1997 on technology systems designed to help secure the border, and Homeland Security officials are preparing to solicit bids from private contractors sometime this year for a new, $2.5 billionsystem.
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, did not return a call for comment on the audit.
In a response attached to the audit, the agency's acting commissioner, Deborah Spero, said the Bush administration agreed with the report's recommendation to find ways to measure how the technology helps agents. But officials objected to its "negative" tone.
Critics outside government and several internal reports have raised questions about how the money for technology has been spent and whether all the equipment works the way it is supposed to. A study last year found incomplete installation, shoddy equipment, poor management and inflated costs for installing cameras along the Southwest border
In the audit, released in mid-December, investigators looked at every alert generated by remote sensors, cameras and observation by people during five, 24-hour periods last April and May in three Border Patrol sectors in the Southwest: Tucson and El Paso and Laredo, Texas, and three along the Canadian border.
The sensors, which are hidden or buried along major smuggling routes near the border, detect seismic vibrations triggered when something passes by. They cost $3,500 each. Remote cameras, which can scan the area near sensors, aren't set up to automatically look at a sensor that sets off an alert, so Border Patrol technicians must point cameras at them manually.
On the Mexican border, sensors sounded 29,710 alerts, one every 44 seconds, on average. Agents couldn't even determine what caused the alerts 62 percent of the time, either because technicians didn't pass information on to a field agent fast enough, because no agent was available to investigate it or because it took agents too long to reach the sensor. With sensors deployed in remote locations in the desert, response times can vary depending on how far away the nearest Border Patrol station is.
Of the incidents agents investigated, 90 percent were caused by something other than illegal activity, like a passing car, a train or an animal. Only 252 incidents, less than 1 percent of all the sensor alerts, led agents to apprehend people crossing the border illegally.
Auditors said it was possible some of the alerts agents couldn't investigate were triggered by illegal activity. But, they said, that was unlikely because of the high rate of false alarms in cases with known causes.
The results on the Canadian border weren't much better, with false alarms generating 92 percent of the 2,077 alerts by sensors.
In the Southwest, cameras performed better, with 57 percent of the 155 incidents captured on video in the Southwest leading to apprehensions, and only 1 percent turning out to be a false alarm. Likewise, of the 780 observations by people, whether vehicle stops, aerial observation, Border Patrol surveillance or citizen tips, 49 percent led to apprehensions, though 40 percent were false alarms.
Homeland Security officials say the technology helps secure the border by pointing agents to trouble spots, letting the Border Patrol cover more ground with fewer people. But the report said agents and technicians should be added to respond to computerized alerts.
Investigators also found that there wasn't any way to judge whether the sensors make the Border Patrol more effective, and recommended that officials develop standards to evaluate the system.
"Sensors have always been just one arrow in the quiver, one tool that the Border Patrol has," said Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., whose Tucson district runs along the border. "It's still a tool that helps. If it actually hinders, we better look fairly seriously at it."
Border Patrol agents get used to chasing down false leads as part of the job, said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing about 10,000 agents in the field. Bonner said he once was sent to investigate alerts triggered by a sensor placed on a railroad track in the desert, which contracted at night when temperatures plunged, rattling the sensor as if something had moved nearby.
The technology can be useful, but shouldn't be relied on too heavily, he said.
"You know that something's moving around there - it could be a cow, it could be a coyote - not the two-legged variety - or it could be people," Bonner said. "We're not Luddites, by any stretch of the imagination, but by the same token we recognize that it takes a human being to catch a human being."
Security technology experts said no piece of equipment, on its own, will stop illegal immigration.
"You can't just throw technology at a problem," said James Carafano, senior fellow for national security and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
"There is no silver bullet, there is no one single thing that you're going to do on the border in terms of technology that is going to solve your problems."