- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2008

A multiyear, multibillion-dollar Homeland Security plan to better secure the nation’s borders by giving front-line agents updated surveillance systems, enhanced communications and improved intelligence technologies remains “ambiguous and in a continued state of flux,” a government report said.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said this week it is “unclear and uncertain” what technology capabilities will be delivered when the program, known as the Secure Border Initiative, is fully deployed along the nation’s Southwest border - including the Secure Border Initiative Network, or SBInet, which focuses on better securing the border through technology and infrastructure.

The GAO said SBInet testing has not been effectively managed.

“SBInet will integrate the latest technology and infrastructure to interdict illegal immigration and stop threats attempting to cross borders,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in announcing the program. “This strategic partnership allows the department to exploit private-sector ingenuity and expertise to quickly secure our nation’s borders.”

In November 2005, Homeland Security established the SBI program, estimating a total cost for the acquisition phase on the Southwest border at $7.6 billion for fiscal 2007 through 2011.

About $5.1 billion was set aside for the design, development, integration and deployment of fencing, roads, vehicle barriers, sensors, radar units, and command, control and communications, and other equipment, and $2.5 billion for integrated logistics and operations support.

Work on the northern border is not projected to begin before fiscal 2009.

But the GAO said in its report that the scope and timing of the planned SBInet deployments and capabilities have continued to change since the program began and, even now, are not clear.

“The program office does not have an approved integrated master schedule to guide the execution of the program, and GAO’s assimilation of available information indicates that the schedule has continued to change,” the agency said.

“This schedule-related risk is exacerbated by the continuous change in and the absence of a clear definition of the approach that is being used to define, develop, acquire, test and deploy SBInet,” it said. “The absence of clarity and stability … impairs the ability of the Congress to oversee the program and hold [Homeland Security] accountable for program results, and it hampers DHS’s ability to measure program progress.”

According to the GAO, SBInet requirements have not been effectively defined or managed. The agency said that while the program office recently issued guidance that defines key practices associated with effectively developing and managing requirements, the guidance was developed only after several key activities had been completed.

In response to numerous recommendations outlined in the GAO report, Homeland Security referred the matter to its border enforcement agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), saying that when it confirmed what actions CBP has taken in response to the recommendations, “we will provide updated information.”

CBP Commissioner W. Ralph Basham defended the program earlier this month during a House hearing, saying his agency was in no hurry to deploy something that did not work.

He said that while SBInet “is not without problems, it is not a failure,” and that the agency’s “commitment to get it right” has never been stronger.

In its report, the GAO said that in the absence of effective guidance, the program has not ensured that different levels of requirements are properly aligned. It said a “large percentage” of program requirements could not be traced and that some of SBInet’s operational requirements were found by an independent review to be “unaffordable and unverifiable.”

“As a result, the risk of SBInet not meeting mission needs and performing as intended is increased, as are the chances of expensive and time-consuming system rework,” the agency said. “The program office has not tested the individual system components to be deployed to the initial deployment locations, even though the contractor initiated integration testing of these components with other system components and subsystems in June 2008.”

While a test management strategy was drafted in May, the GAO said it has not been finalized and approved, and it does not contain, among other things, a clear definition of testing roles and responsibilities; a high-level master schedule of SBInet test activities; or sufficient detail to effectively guide project-specific test planning.

“Without a structured and disciplined approach to testing, the risk that SBInet will not satisfy user needs and operational requirements, thus requiring system rework, is increased,” the GAO said.