Spy Towers on the US Border


Boeing has enlisted the aid of Elbit Systems, Israel’s major defense contractor, to construct high-tech surveillance along the border of the U.S. and Mexico. So far, the high-tech fiasco is not working and Arizona residents are organizing a lawsuit to halt government spying on U.S. citizens.

Arivaca resident Margaret Keoppen is among those opposing the 98-foot spy tower in her community, part of Project 28 of the Secure Border Initiative.

With a spy viewing range of 10 miles, the spy tower is pointed at the good folks of Arivaca.

“This system is entirely experimental with unknown results and I don’t wish to be used as a guinea pig with resulting harm to me, my family, my animals, area wildlife,” Keoppen told Project 28.

In Tucson, the search for the biggest joke in town–the environmental assessment of the spy towers — began at the public library.

“That’s odd,” said a research librarian, “there are no copies of it here.” Diligent, the librarian plowed through the web and made a phone call.

A copy of the environmental assessment for the new high-tech border surveillance was finally located at the Arivaca library. In Arivaca, the draft copy of the assessment arrived on a Saturday in April, with no public notice.

A typed cover letter from U.S.Customs and Border Protection said residents had four days to respond, April 14 — 18. The library was closed two of those days. Without phone calls from the librarians, no one would have known it was there. Few people had a chance to even read it.

Driving down from Tucson, the earth is scorched from the 114 to 118 degree temperatures. Contrary to the frenzied hype of television news, a drive along the border, through Three Points, then down the road to Sasabe and finally to Arivaca, reveals three Wackenhut buses–all empty — waiting to be loaded with migrants. There wasn’t a migrant in sight. (Wackenhut, with its history of human rights violations, is now on contract to transport migrants rather than Border Patrol. Wackenhut is now Geo Group, but the buses are labeled Wackenhut.)

A stop at a bird walk near Arivaca proves more desolation. Two men with hunting dogs arrive in separate vehicles. One man takes off quickly for another site, both men wearing plain clothes. In this no-man’s land, strangers are assumed to be undercover border agents or Minutemen.

In Arivaca, residents are fighting mad about the spy tower, which was built without consulting them, less than a mile from town.

“You can not see the border from that spy tower, because of the mountains. The only thing you can see is Arivaca,” says one woman living in this community of 2,500.

Arivaca is 12 miles north of the border and the desert mountains are a fortress that the spy tower camera can not penetrate. In fact, the spy tower isn’t penetrating anything, because like all the nine spy towers on Project 28 of the Secure Border Initiative so far, it isn’t working. But more about that later.

The spy tower has the good folks of Arivaca in clear sight. It is a community of artists and ranchers, popular with birdwatchers and nature lovers. The people here savor their privacy. They have selected Arivaca because it is off the beaten track and ensures a quiet life, far from the prying eyes of anyone.

Now, without any consultation, there is a spy tower on the edge of town, with its camera pointed at them. Worse, the Boeing equipment list for Project 28 calls for radar, infrared, lasers, microwave, iris biometrics and facial biometrics.

“Iris biometrics?” Arivacans ask.

In the environmental assessment, there is no research concerning the health effects of the lasers, microwave, iris biometrics and other technology, on humans.

The environmental assessment concludes Project 28 will have “no significant impact.”

However, the assessment lists the endangered, threatened and sensitive life forms, including the Pima pineapple cactus, masked bobwhite habitat, desert tortoise, burrowing owl and lesser long-nosed bat. There’s also Santa Cruz stripe agave, Huachuca golden aster and Lumholtz nightshade. In Pima County, there’s 20 species, including the Chiricahua leopard frog, cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl and southwestern willow flycatcher.

The conclusion for all: The towers will have “no significant impact.”

Arivaca is the territory of migrating bats, including a large population on the move from the nearby ghost town of Ruby. In the assessment, there’s nothing more than a little mumbo-jumbo about the bats.

Local residents wonder if the spy tower’s radar will effect the bats’ ability to hunt. In the white wash of the environmental assessment, it says, “Tower radar is not expected to impact echolocation of lesser long-nosed bat because recent studies determined that some species of bats avoided the frequencies of radar to which they were exposed,” the assessment says.

So, they’re guessing that the bats won’t be impacted.

Here in the Sonoran desert, bats, hummingbirds, bees and butterflies are the major pollinators. Without pollinators, there will be no saguaro, yucca or desert plants.

In the assessment, there’s only brief mention of the endangered jaguar, Panthera onca. It is the largest cat in the Southwest. There’s also the endangered Sonoran pronghorn and the threatened bald eagle.

The environmental assessment is clearly a joke, no one could have manufactured this document with serious intent. After listing the threatened and endangered species here, including bats and jaguars, the environment assessment concludes that wildlife will not be harmed by the spy towers.

Wildlife, it says, is “expected to stay away.”

This is Saturday Night Live funny. It is easy to image the cartoon, as CorpWatch has also imagined and posted on its website, with horns sounding out alerts in the desert. One horn could be honking: “Wildlife — that includes you birds–you’re expected to stay away!”

On the serious side, the assessment admits that warning lights on towers can disorient migrating birds and cause them to fly in circles, resulting in fatal collisions. Red lights attract more birds than white ones. So, the Boeing solution is: “loud hailer horns.”

The assessment talks much more about grasses and birds than it does of spying on U.S. citizens, which it does not address.

Unwarranted spying on U.S. citizens can have dangerous, even deadly consequences. With the spy towers, Border Patrol agents will be able to sit in their cars and watch local residents on their laptop computers, if and when the spy towers begin functioning.

Arivacans have asked Homeland Security about privacy. However, no one in Homeland Security can assure them that normal citizens will not be spied on.

Border residents ask: What about the occasional Border Patrol agent who is a pedophile, stalker, rapist or murderer. Border Patrol agents are now charged with the crimes of rape and murder.

What would prevent a Border Patrol agent from keeping tabs on the young man or woman they are attracted to with their spy apparatus?

With thousands of border agents, and new recruits arriving constantly, there are no guarantees.

There are two spy towers already built on the Tohono O´odham Nation, as a result of cooperation between the Tohono O´odham tribal government and Homeland Security.

Because of the cooperation between Homeland Security and the previous tribal chairwoman, Vivian Juan-Saunders, there are two migrant detention centers on tribal land, which O´odham human rights activists like Ofelia Rivas say violates the Him’dag, the O´odham way of life.

Tohono O’odham tribal land is a place where a large number of migrants die of dehydration and heat every year. Although Mike Wilson, O’odham, puts out water for migrants in a few areas, his efforts are not supported by the tribe. Derechos Humanos Coalition in Tucson said more migrants are dieing this year along the border than last year, because of failed immigration policies forcing migrants into more dangerous and desolate crossing areas.

Tohono O´odham, who were not consulted about the spy towers on tribal land, now ask if Border Patrol agents will be watching them in their outdoor shower stalls. Here temperatures range from 114 to 118 in the hottest part of the summer. Further, O’odham interviewed did not have any idea that an environmental assessment had been released or how to find a copy.

As if that wasn’t enough cause for alarm, along with the privacy lawsuit now being organized, there are even more troubling facts about the spy towers.

Boeing has entered into a contract with Elbit Systems, Israel’s primary defense contractor, to help construct this virtual high-tech border wall. Elbit is involved with building the Apartheid Wall in occupied Palestine.

Elbit provides surveillance and spy products around the world, from infrared spy technology on the Canadian border to surveillance to European countries. Elbit now has subsidiary companies in the United States.

Elbit is currently the subject of a lawsuit involving satellite images. Elbit is a major shareholder in ImageSat International. Minority stockholders at ImageSat have filed suit against the company because of loss of revenues, which they say is based on politics. Among the allegations: ImageSat refused to turn over spy satellite images to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Boeing, the recipient of the $20 million contract for securing the 28-mile stretch of border here, itself is the subject of a new lawsuit. The American Civil Liberties Union alleges Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen DataPlan provided dozens of CIA torture flights to secret prisons.

Back to the spy towers at the Arizona border, those aren’t working. After failing to meet a start-up date in June, Boeing was chastised by Congress and Boeing stocks declined. There’s no official explanation of the failure of the spy towers to function and no new startup date was announced.

Boeing has admitted that it is using regular Wi-Fi, the same band used at your favorite coffee shop, for communications. Project 28 local broadband wireless uses an unlicensed band at 5.85 GHz. That came as a joke in Arizona. In these rugged desert mountains, even cell phone service is spotty.

In the environmental assessment, Boeing does say it has decided against using the unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) as planned. It does not explain that a multi-million dollar drone crashed near Nogales, Ariz., in 2006. The Border Patrol stopped using the drones at that point.

Earlier, when the unmanned aerial vehicles were hovering above, no one told Arizona residents on the ground, including the Tohono O’odham, of the danger of the lasers onboard. If the drones flew too low, or crashed as one drone ultimately did, the lasers could blind or cause other injuries to people on the ground.

Once again, in the drones’ environmental assessment, those lasers were considered to have “no significant impact.” The drones were simply expected not to fly too low.

In the spy towers’ environmental assessment, there are comments, including this one from Luke James Brannen of Arivaca.

“You have alienated Arivacans enough with your harassment. You need to protect the border, do it at the border.

“Schutzstaffel tactics do not work in a liberal democracy. You can secure our homeland by leaving it alone,” Brannen said referring to Hitler’s secret police.

Mary Scott had more to say.

“The citizens of Arivaca have been on the front line of the border war for many years. We are sickened by the environmental degradation of our fragile desert, the loss of human life and the constant intrusions of enforcement cars, vans, trucks, buses and helicopters on our lives.”

Scott points out that the tower is in a sacred area, the Desert Light Labyrinth, a place of walking meditation and prayer, memorial services and healing ceremonies.

The loud hailer horns, with 100 to 130 decibels, would make prayer and meditation impossible.

Alan Wallen, owner of a small wireless Internet provider service, saw trouble coming from the time the environment assessment draft was first quietly left at the local library.

Wallen immediately notified Project 28, there would be problems with Wi-Fi interference for locals, since Project 28 was using the public band. Those problems are still unresolved.

In a statement just released, Brannen says, “The tower of power is illegal.”

Brannen said it is a violation of the Fourth Amendment which guarantees the right of U.S. citizens “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

“Some think just because residents of Arivaca live near the border, this particular location makes the Tower of Power legal. This is not true, in carrying out any and all of its powers, the government must follow The Constitution,” Brannen said.

“It may not search citizen’s effects or discriminate against them without a warrant. There might be a probable cause to search a person upon entering the country, but not when a resident citizen is living lawfully within the country. If the government does not respect the supreme law of the land, then the government and its ‘elected’ officials become illegitimate.

“The U.S. Constitution implores the US government to be faithful to the honored Constitution, and in turn respect its citizen’s liberties, rights and the rights of the citizens of the world with due process within the U.S.’s Law.”

In other areas of the Arizona border where spy towers are planned, including the Douglas/Naco area, residents are also organizing to halt spying on community members.

All along the border, residents point out this fact: Once they’ve got the photos or the video on you, what’s to stop them from using it against you in any way they please — including for political reasons.

There’s another point they are quick to point out: Even if they worked, the spy towers would not stop border crossers. Migrants headed north would find a way to cross.

BRENDA NORRELL is Human rights editor for U.N. OBSERVER & International Report. She also runs the Censored website. She can be reached at: brendanorrell@gmail.com