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House panel OKs tech funds to protect borders

In a rare display of bipartisanship on the issue of border security, the House Science and Technology committee approved a bill Wednesday supporting the development of new technology for border patrol and maritime security.

Comment on this article in the forum.The bill (H.R. 3916), sponsored by House Science and Technology ranking member Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, and co-sponsored by Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., was approved by voice vote. The bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to create research programs in areas of cross-border tunnel detection, anti-counterfeit technologies and the use of global positioning system technology in tracking illegal border crossings. DHS dedicates approximately $25 million annually to specific border security research.

"While I understand the concerns many members have regarding comprehensive immigration reform, we should not allow that issue to stymie progress deterring terrorists, drug smugglers and human traffickers," Hall said. The ranking member was referring to the long-standing debate about whether illegal immigration is best dealt with a gentle hand, such as guest worker programs, or a firm one, that is, stiffer penalties for illegal immigrants and those who shelter or employ them alike.

There was no authorization of appropriations made in the bill, but the bill did extend the term of the DHS Science and Technology Advisory Committee through Dec. 31, 2012. The committee is made up of scientists, engineers and security specialists.

The bill also requires DHS and the Joint Planning and Development Office to develop a plan to allow routine operation of unmanned aerial vehicles for border and maritime security missions.

A committee report said current use of UAVs is difficult; it requires advanced planning with the Federal Aviation Administration because of possible safety issues with manned aircraft.

Gordon said that Hall's bill was "about a year late," alluding to DHS deciding to not extend an experimental "virtual fence" of radar, infrared cameras and UAVs along a 28-mile-stretch of the border with Mexico. The program was plagued with software glitches and had fallen behind schedule.

The committee adopted by voice vote a substitute amendment from Hall. The amendment made technical changes, and added a provision that the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Coast Guard would be consulted for tunnel detection and anti-counterfeit programs.

The committee adopted an amendment from Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., added an assessment of real-time tactical scene awareness technology to be included in a National Research Council assessment of basic research needs. The assessment in the bill will also include researching personal protective equipment, advanced screening technology and identification technology.

An amendment from Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, was also approved by voice vote. His amendment establishes a research program of mobile biometric technology for border patrol agents to access.

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