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.
Chief Aguilar also said he "had to shut down" some pending and ongoing programs involving the Border Patrol's Enforcement and Information Technology (EIT) Division, which the agency has described as a key component in its ability to secure U.S. borders.
Critics of the border project contend that the Bush administration had two possible goals in launching SBInet, both of which it failed to meet: to build a well-planned, functional, high-tech system of sensors, cameras, radars and a Border Patrol command center; or to move quickly and tout the border security effort as a means of negotiating immigration reform.
"Those two forces are not in harmony," Mr. Stana said. "The dilemma for the department now is how far does it go with a multibillion-dollar program, or are there other more reliable options at a comparable cost?"
William K. Moore, a former political consultant and now a lobbyist whose clients include the Texas Border Coalition, a group of local officials and community leaders who represent more than 6 million people who live along the Mexican border, described the project as a "political strategy" by the Bush administration to shore up immigration reform.
"The department either pursued it for a political purpose that had nothing to with homeland security, or pursued it without any strategy whatsoever," Mr. Moore said.
Others contend that even after spending more than $1 billion, Homeland Security cannot demonstrate that SBInet or the 370 miles of pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers being built along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border are responsible for the apprehension of illegal immigrants or contraband.
The department's budget report for fiscal 2011 does not disclose actual apprehension rates of illegal immigrants for fiscal 2009 or target numbers for this fiscal year, labeling such figures: "For Official Use Only."
Despite Homeland Security's recent decision to re-evaluate SBInet, department officials and lawmakers charged with oversight were told long ago that the virtual fence was being built on a shaky foundation.
"GAO was on this right from the start," Mr. Stana said of SBInet, which was launched in 2006. "The first problem was the government never came up with detailed requirements for the system; they never talked to the Border Patrol."
In February 2007, GAO already knew SBInet needed better oversight and accountability. In a detailed report, GAO recommended to Congress that Homeland Security take a closer look at what Boeing was promising concerning the capabilities, schedules, costs and benefits associated with the program.
Earlier that month, the department had convened a panel of high-ranking government officials, including Homeland Security's inspector general and the U.S. comptroller general, to discuss how to ensure that the government gets what it pays for from outside contractors.
The discussion centered on SBInet and Deepwater, a much-maligned program to develop new ships for the U.S. Coast Guard — an obvious cautionary tale for the border program: One of the panelists that day was Greg Giddens, then director of the SBI program who also headed Deepwater. He could not be reached for comment.
But GAO reports on SBInet kept coming, 14 in all. Congress was told that there were no management controls in place; there were no specifics on staffing levels, goals or status of the project; and there was a risk of cost and schedule overruns and performance problems.
By October 2007, GAO found that Boeing had delivered radars, sensors and cameras to a 28-mile test site near Tucson known as "Project 28," yet the project was incomplete more than four months after it was to become operational. Homeland Security was unable to specify a date when the entire system would be operational, GAO said.
The SBInet contract called for a fixed-price pilot project that, Mr. Stana said, was "intended to be an off-the-shelf application to be replicated up and down the border by 2009." Some of the most basic equipment, in other words, was commercially available at places like Radio Shack.
But as Project 28 bogged down in the often brutal climate of the southwestern border and as the system confused animals and windblown vegetation for suspicious activity, GAO grew more concerned.
"When they missed the first deadline in June 2008, an expectations gap became apparent between what Boeing and the department were telling Congress and what was on the ground," Mr. Stana said. "It's a shame that gap was never addressed by Homeland Security or Boeing."
Boeing spokeswoman Deborah Bosick said in an e-mail that the company's goal "is to deliver a system that will help agents do their jobs more safely and effectively." She referred further questions to CBP.
By September 2008, Homeland Security and Boeing began telling Congress that the virtual fence was a "prototype," meaning glitches were to be expected as the new technology was refined for actual use.
"That is not borne out by the documents," Mr. Stana said. "You didn't start hearing about prototypes until difficulties arose."
Mark Borkowski, current SBI director, responded, "Pilot, prototype, it's a distinction without a difference."
But SBInet remained mired in an ambiguous but consistent state of flux, GAO found, which pushed back deadlines to 2011 and, eventually, 2016. Its September 2008 report said it was "unclear and uncertain" what SBInet was capable of detecting once the program was fully deployed.
The report said the absence of "clarity and stability" impaired Congress' ability to oversee the program or to hold Homeland Security accountable. It said SBInet operational requirements either could not be traced or were "unaffordable and unverifiable."
GAO told Congress and Homeland Security that Boeing would have to engage in a costly re-engineering of the failed off-the-shelf technology if it expected the system to ever work. In spite of a growing number of critical reports, Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security in the Bush administration, accepted the project.
By late 2008, two Boeing vice presidents delivered optimistic reports to Congress. A year later, in September 2009, on the same day the GAO released yet another critical report on the project, a third Boeing vice president similarly told Congress that SBInet was under control.
"There wasn't anything in that report that wasn't in our last report to the previous administration in 2008," Mr. Stana said, adding that in September 2009 he told a House committee that taxpayers were not getting their money's worth out of SBInet.
Mr. Chertoff did not return calls for comment.
Glenn Spencer, president of the American Border Patrol, a private organization that uses airplanes and high-tech equipment to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border, said the virtual fence failed because Homeland Security "did not set measurable goals for the system."
"Boeing didnt really know what to build and [Homeland Security] had no way of knowing if it was working or not," said Mr. Spencer, whose board includes two former Border Patrol chiefs. "The axiom reads: If you cant measure it, you cant improve it."
Ms. Napolitano first announced that the program was under review on Jan. 8, the Friday before a report on SBInet aired on CBS' "60 Minutes." On Wednesday, she signaled in testimony to a Senate committee that SBInet was hanging in the balance, saying that "before we say we're going to do this along the entire border, we need to re-evaluate and see if there's better technologies that will pair with our actual boots on the ground in a more effective way."
A day later, Mr. Borkowski sounded more committed to SBInet: "I am optimistic that this is a good system that will pass our evaluation tests by the end of 2010."
Mr. Thompson said the Homeland Security Committee will continue its "careful oversight" of SBInet, adding that the "American taxpayers expect a return on their investment." He urged Ms. Napolitano to "ensure that SBInet delivers as promised, or examine whether other reliable, cost-effective technology can help secure America's borders."