A multibillion-dollar “virtual fence” along the southwestern border promised for completion in 2009 to protect the U.S. from terrorists, violent drug smugglers and a flood of illegal immigrants is a long way from becoming a reality, with government officials unable to say when, how or whether it will ever be completed.
More than three years after launching a major border security initiative and forking over more than $1 billion to the Boeing Co., the project’s major contractor, Homeland Security Department officials are re-evaluating the high-tech component of the plan in the wake of a series of critical Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports warning lawmakers that the expensive undertaking is deeply flawed.
The program now places the Obama administration in a quandary, foretold by lawmakers who witnessed Boeing and Homeland Security publicly mischaracterize the nature of the contract, according to GAO, after government officials, watchdogs and contractors privately discovered that it was destined to fail.
“Regrettably, the partnership between [Homeland Security] and Boeing has produced far more missed deadlines and excuses than results,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in September 2008. “It will become the 44th president’s problem.”
Since February 2007, according to a review of federal records by The Washington Times, GAO has been telling Congress and Homeland Security that its high-tech border protection system needed better oversight and accountability, and that it lacked realistic measures of cost, timing and benefits.
Early on, GAO found that Boeing had failed to show how the $1.1 billion high-tech system would meet the objectives of the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), a comprehensive, multiyear, $4 billion Homeland Security proposal to secure the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, and urged revisions to the company’s lucrative contract.
Despite such warnings, based on GAO’s detailed evaluations of the root causes of major problems, the goals of the high-tech project, dubbed “SBInet,” were not realized and deadlines were pushed back. In September, GAO reported to Congress that the virtual fence scheduled for completion in 2009 will not be ready until at least 2016 — if it goes forward at all.
Meantime, the Obama administration has announced significant budget cuts for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) programs that depend on costly manpower, fencing, infrastructure and technology. While Homeland Security has described the virtual fence project as a critical element of increased border security, the administration has requested $574 million for the program for fiscal 2011 — a cut of nearly 30 percent compared with the $800 million that Congress approved in fiscal 2010.
“How can Congress even contemplate the administration’s substantial cuts to SBInet when the investment plans and oversight reports required by law have been completely ignored?” Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican and a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, said last week.
Mr. Rogers is not the only one asking questions. The GAO has asked repeatedly how much more the government is willing to spend on a failed initiative.
“There’s a trillion-dollar budget deficit and you’re looking for programs that don’t work?” said Richard M. Stana, GAO’s director of homeland security issues. “This one hasn’t proven yet that it’s workable.”
The White House, in an e-mail response from Tom Gavin, a spokesman at the Office of Management and Budget, said that while SBInet has faced a series of “well-documented challenges,” the fiscal 2011 budget supports continued investment in technological improvements at the border.
“Currently, the technology is undergoing field testing prior to operational deployment,” he said. “The administration will take a hard look at [Homeland Security] assessments of the most effective ways to deploy security technology along the borders.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was before Congress last week defending a 3 percent cut to the CBP budget, a proposal that has concerned Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar, now serving as acting CBP deputy commissioner. In a Dec. 18 confidential memo to his sector chiefs, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, he said, “As you know, we have been going through some painful budget exercises and … unfortunately it is going to get more painful.”
The chief said the Border Patrol needed to cut new expenditures below commitments it made for the fiscal 2009 budget, adding that while “significant cuts” already had been made, additional reductions would be necessary. He directed the sector chiefs to do more with less.