Signaling a major shift from her predecessor, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Tuesday said she will spend $50 million of stimulus funds originally intended to build a "virtual fence" along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border on other more proven and cost-effective security technology.
The decision to pull back funding on the initiative aimed at protecting the U.S. from terrorists, violent drug smugglers and illegal immigrants comes on the heels of a series of damning reports by the Government Accountability Office, and as Ms. Napolitano attempts to justify to lawmakers a 30 percent budget reduction for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in the midst of a raging drug war along the Southwest border.
To date, the U.S. government, through the Secure Border Initiative, has paid Boeing Co. more than $1 billion to build less than 700 miles of barriers between ports of entry, and a costly but flawed system of radar towers, ground sensors and cameras known as SBInet, a $4 billion project that appears to be in jeopardy.
"Not only do we have an obligation to secure our borders, we have a responsibility to do so in the most cost-effective way possible," Ms. Napolitano said. "The system of sensors and cameras along the Southwest border known as SBInet has been plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines."
Ms. Napolitano said the department will instead use $50 million of stimulus funding originally allocated for the first phase of SBInet to buy security technology such as mobile surveillance, thermal-imaging devices, body scanning units, mobile radios, cameras and laptops for pursuit vehicles.
On Jan. 15, Ms. Napolitano said the department was reassessing the SBInet program. She said she had directed David V. Aguilar, acting CBP commissioner, to re-evaluate its implementation. She said the order was due to her "ongoing concerns about SBInet," including what she called "unacceptable delays" in the project's completion.
She said at the time that Homeland Security would decide based on that reassessment whether to recompete the contract, extend the contract or try something different. On Tuesday, she said, "We are freezing all SBInet funding beyond the initial deployment to the Tucson and Ajo regions until the assessment I ordered in January is completed."
The Washington Times examined GAO reports on the project and reported on March 1 that government officials were unable to say when, how or whether SBInet would ever be completed.
Ms. Napolitano's announcement Tuesday met with mixed reactions from lawmakers and representatives of rank and file border patrol officers.
"I'm all for securing our border, but haphazardly pulling the rug out from underneath SBINet to fund some other unplanned projects, suggests we're back to throwing money at problems, not relying on strategic decisions on utilizing the taxpayers' money," said Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican and ranking member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that SBInet, since its inception "has been a grave and expensive disappointment.
"Today's announcement is recognition that this troubled program needs better management and stronger oversight," he said. "We are tired of listening to stories about faulty cameras, poor tower stability and overly sensitive sensors which have led to failed testing."