But critics, including some in Congress, question whether the new gadgets will cut down on illegal activity on the border. Some say the Bush administration's cost estimates are too low.
"We haven't been shown what went wrong with this first pilot program in camera technology," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala. "For that reason, I don't think they should be going forward with it."
Rogers heads a House subcommittee that is investigating an earlier contract for cameras along the border, including in Arizona. That contract ballooned from $2 million to $200 million, and many of the remote cameras never worked properly.
Government auditors still are looking into the purchase, and Rogers' committee will hold another hearing on it Friday .
The new technology will comprise a major part of a much-touted administration plan to secure the borders.
Officials want to install a system that brings together information and images from cameras, remote sensors, satellites and unmanned airplanes on the country's borders with both Mexico and Canada.
"We still need old-fashioned Border Patrol agents who are savvy," Chertoff said. "We still need to have beds and removal. But we also want to have high-tech."
Lawmakers who have pushed the administration to add more technology to the border said they're glad officials are moving closer to buying more.
"When you have a 2,000-mile border that has darn near every kind of terrain, then you've got to have different technology," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Some high-tech gadgets already are being used successfully. A $14 million unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), like the ones used to hunt al-Qaida members in Afghanistan and insurgents in Iraq, has flown over the Border Patrol's Tucson sector since October. It has helped intercept more than 1,000 undocumented immigrants and more than 400 pounds of drugs, the agency said.
Military units from Fort Lewis, Wash., training for deployment to Iraq, worked with Border Patrol agents in New Mexico all through October, using Stryker armored vehicles with their sophisticated surveillance equipment to help spot smugglers crossing through the desert.
But experts in border security and in the technology the administration wants to install worry that too much emphasis is being put on gizmos.
"There's this notion with a lot of people that because we're the United States of America we can solve any problem with the proper application of force," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing about 10,000 agents on the northern and southern borders.
Many border experts say putting more gear on the border without changing immigration laws won't help much.
"So now we're going to get Gulf War II hand-me-downs, and it's a nice thing for a congressman to bring home a UAV," said the Rev. Robin Hoover, founder of Humane Borders, a Tucson-based organization that tries to help immigrants cross the border safely.
Bureaucratic problems also could slow the technology. So far, the Federal Aviation Administration has allowed Homeland Security officials to fly only one Predator drone along the Southwest border because FAA officials are worried about interfering with private aviation.
And costs easily could climb past the administration's estimate, critics said, pointing to the $200 million camera contract.
"Think about how many (Predator drones) you're going to need," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank that tracks military technology. "You could spend $10 million on one without breathing too hard, depending on what type of vehicle you're talking about. You have one of these things every how many miles - well, that's going to be a bunch of them. For every one that you've got up, you're going to have another one in the hangar, and then you have to have a bunch of people sitting there watching the TVs 24 hours a day, three shifts. That starts to add up."
Talks on Defense personnel system break down
By Karen Rutzick
A coalition of 36 Defense Department unions boycotted scheduled discussions over the Pentagon's new personnel system this week, citing insufficient time to prepare.
The no-show widened the rift between Pentagon officials and unions over the National Security Personnel System. This week's talks were the final opportunity for union contribution before the system's tentative February implementation.
The Pentagon scheduled the Dec. 13 and Dec. 14 meetings to gain union input on hundreds of pages of documents released in late November. The documents provide details on how the department plans to implement pay for performance and other aspects of the reforms.
But the union coalition said there was not enough time to read, analyze and prepare suggestions on the particulars of the personnel system, which replaces the General Schedule with broad salary ranges and eliminates annual raises in favor of performance- and market-based salary increases.
A number of unions in the coalition filed a lawsuit in November in which they accused the Pentagon of failing to seek adequate union input while creating NSPS. The lawsuit also addressed the labor relations portion of the reforms, but it did not touch on the human resources details included in the documents, known as "implementing issuances."
After quietly releasing the issuances Nov. 23 on the NSPS Web site, the Pentagon briefed the unions on Dec. 1 and Dec. 2.
NSPS officials planned follow-up meetings for Dec. 13 and Dec. 14 "to provide employee representatives an opportunity to discuss their views and recommendations with DoD officials on the implementing issuances," a Dec. 7 letter from NSPS program executive officer Mary Lacey to union leader Byron Charlton stated.
At the initial NSPS briefing, union representatives had told Lacey that two weeks was not enough time to read and analyze the documents, especially because of the holidays, and had proposed meetings Jan. 9-11. But Lacey denied that request in her letter.
The Pentagon did arrange an additional teleconference for Dec. 22 and extended the deadline for submitting written comments on most of the documents from Dec. 23 to Dec. 30.
"We believe the schedule provides a fair and reasonable opportunity for views and recommendations to be submitted and considered," NSPS spokesperson Joyce Frank said.
Coalition leaders disagree.
"If the collaborative process is to be a participatory practice of all parties, we insist on consulting on schedules that accommodate the needs of management and the [coalition] alike," Charlton said. "Again, the Pentagon is displaying their disregard for the legitimate worker representatives."
David Walker, the head of the Government Accountability Office and a leader in federal personnel reforms, said a breakdown in employee involvement at this stage could be damaging to the overall success of NSPS.
"There's going to be controversy about whatever changes you're going to make," Walker said. "That's why it's all the more important to have a process that has integrity so at the end of the day whether people may or may not like the changes, at least they feel the process had integrity. That can make all the difference."
In her letter, Lacey disagreed with the unions' contention that the latest documents contain a lot of new material. Many of the concepts were previously discussed with unions at meetings last spring, she said.
Coalition spokesperson Matt Biggs said the unions still hope to find a mutually agreeable time to meet.
"What we're hoping for and expecting from their side is to truly collaborate with us and come to a mutual timeframe where we can meet," Biggs said. "It's just unreasonable [to] expect us to go over 400 pages of documents that of course they've been working on for years."