- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2011

Announced with great fanfare by the Bush administration in 2005, the Secure Border Initiative included a “virtual fence” on the southwestern border to give law enforcement the high-tech surveillance images and information needed to detect breaches and make deployment decisions to protect the U.S. from terrorists, drug smugglers and illegal immigrants.

But last month, after four years of blown deadlines and cost overruns, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the initiative had been canceled in favor of a more region-specific approach, and now even supporters of strengthening the nation’s borders say the troubled project was not worth its $1 billion price tag.

“A billion dollars later, it is quite clear … they could not produce a product that is worth the investment,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat, who until this year chaired the House Homeland Security Committee.

Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), said there were problems with the project’s design, implementation, cost and schedule. He said the project was “overpromised and underdelivered.”

“It was not up to snuff,” he said.

Those sentiments echo what many politicians and government watchdogs have been saying since the project began.

A Homeland Security report made public in January that accompanied a statement canceling the virtual-fence project, dubbed SBInet, conceded that only last year did department officials conduct a comprehensive cost-effectiveness analysis of the project on the U.S.-Mexico border — four years after the plan had been approved and at a time the project was behind schedule, over budget and facing costly overruns.

The department said it did not until last year formally assess the operational value of the system against the projected costs, even though the contract was awarded in 2006 and such tests are normally a prerequisite for a project of that size.

The report determined that the virtual-fence project was “not the most efficient, effective and economical way to meet our nation’s border security needs,” although by then, the department had spent $1 billion for 53 miles of protection along the 1,969-mile U.S.-Mexico border as part of the much-heralded SBInet program.

Homeland Security’s assessment coincided with a stinging report in October by the GAO, the latest in a series of negative reports by the watchdog agency on SBInet that began in 2007. The GAO said Homeland Security had failed to effectively manage the project or give sufficient oversight to its prime contractor, the Boeing Co.

In September 2009, GAO told Congress that the virtual fence, scheduled for completion in 2009, would not be ready until at least 2016 — if it went forward at all.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano canceled the project in January, saying SBInet could not meet its original objective of providing an integrated technology system for the whole border.

“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to meet our border technology needs,” she said in a statement.

Her spokesman, Matthew Chandler, declined to discuss why the department had not conducted a cost-effectiveness analysis on the SBInet project until 2010, noting only that Homeland Security is now “strongly committed to strengthening oversight of our major acquisition programs.” He said President Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget request increased funding for contract specialists to ensure “greater accountability.”

He said U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) also recently created an office of technology innovation and acquisition to ensure that it was “sufficiently staffed with experienced acquisition personnel to manage its large-scale programs like technology deployment along the southwest border.”

Red flags ignored

Both the Bush and Obama administrations kept the program going despite numerous red flags showing that it was not working and was too costly.

David Sherzer, a spokesman for former President George W. Bush, declined to comment. Nicholas Shapiro, an Obama spokesman, referred inquiries to Homeland Security.

One former top CBP official acknowledged that the project was not handled well. Thad Bingel, chief of staff to former CBP Commissioner W. Ralph Basham, said the program began to work on a limited basis this year, “but that is too late.” He said the government and Boeing are to blame for the problems.

“Neither the agency nor the department had done a technology program of this nature with the level of political scrutiny before,” he said, adding that Boeing underestimated some of the challenges of working on the border.

Mr. Thompson, who held 11 oversight hearings on the project, said there were “warning signs” about SBInet “from the very beginning,” but the committee thought “regular oversight and review” could correct the shortcomings.

“If you spend $1 billion on 53 miles of suspect technology versus 1,800 miles of border, obviously it is a failure,” he said.

Mr. Thompson described SBInet as “a grave and expensive disappointment,” adding that he was happy the project had been canceled. He said the “sheer size and variations of our borders show us a one-stop solution has never been best.”

He also noted that nothing his committee reviewed regarding the SBInet project ever showed that it would be successful, and when Homeland Security was asked to fix the problems, nothing happened. He said he told Ms. Napolitano and Bush administration Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about the problems, but it still took “two years under her to get the plug pulled.”

Mr. Chertoff, who now owns a security consulting firm, did not respond to messages left with his office.

Slow to act

Mr. Thompson said Homeland Security was slow to act because it wanted to prove that SBInet was the right idea. He also said the department was not as critical of the investment since it was “spending other folks money,” referring to taxpayers’ dollars.

Congressional staffers said they thought politics played a role in Homeland Security’s mishandling of the contract.

“The reason it took so long was that politics got in the way,” said one Senate staffer who studied the contract. “Everyone wants to secure the border.” He said Homeland Security missed an opportunity to walk away from the contract with Boeing when an earlier prototype did not work. Instead of starting over and rebidding the contract, he said Homeland Security extended Boeing’s contract.

In February 2007, 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 SBInet. The GAO said 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, Ariz., 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.

By September 2008, Homeland Security and Boeing began telling Congress the project was a “prototype,” meaning glitches were to be expected. SBInet remained mired in an ambiguous but consistent state of flux. Deadlines for completion were pushed back to 2011 and then to 2016.

In September 2009, on the same day the GAO released yet another critical report on the project, Boeing told Congress that SBInet was under control, and Homeland Security went ahead with the project. Thirty-day contract renewals were awarded to Boeing in both November and December.

Homeland Security declined to make Mark Borkowski, executive director of the SBInet project, available for an interview, referring inquiries to Ms. Napolitano’s statement and the report.

GAO noted risks

The GAO was critical of the SBInet contract from the beginning.

“In testimony, we painted a picture of a program in trouble right from the start,” said Mr. Stana. “It was very risky as it went forward. We pointed out both the financial and operational risks.”

Mr. Stana said Homeland Security moved too fast to get the project completed in three years and did not follow best practices. He said the department made a mistake by not working at the start with the U.S. Border Patrol agents who would be using the technology.

He said Border Patrol agents in the field were being told to use laptops that did not work to track down illegal border crossers. He said the agents thought a laser pointer that was part of a cheaper alternative would have been more useful to lead them to illegal crossers.

“The system didn’t have that,” said Mr. Stana.

Mr. Stana also said SBInet equipment was unreliable, noting that it was supposed “to scan the horizon and identify illegal crossings,” but the final product was “less than envisioned” and very expensive. He said that while the system was supposed to be able to identify 95 percent of all incursions with a 5 percent margin of error, it was successful at only a 50 percent rate.

He also said the equipment did not work well in the rain or wind and sometimes would misidentify rolling sagebrush for people.

By 2009, Ms. Napolitano was directing CBP to re-evaluate SBInet’s implementation, saying she had concerns about “unacceptable delays” in the project’s completion. That re-evaluation led her in January 2010 to order a detailed reassessment to determine whether SBInet was viable and whether other effective technologies were available at a lesser cost. She froze funding for the project in March 2010 and killed it 10 months later.

Rep. Ed Royce, a California Republican who has long advocated tightening border security, said the government needs to revamp Homeland Security’s management of its technology programs in light of the problems with SBInet.

“They have a history of failing to understand technology and what it can accomplish,” said Mr. Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs terrorism, nonproliferation and trade subcommittee.

Mr. Royce, co-sponsor of legislation authorizing a 750-mile double border fence that has not been finished, said the Bush and Obama administrations have not had the political will to plug what he calls a “porous” border.

“Securing the border requires the right technologies. Rather than walking away from border security, the administration should be plugging security gaps,” he said in a statement after the SBInet contract was canceled.

New border plan

When Ms. Napolitano pulled the contract, she announced a border-security technology plan “tailored to the unique needs of each border region, providing faster deployment of technology, better coverage and a more effective balance between cost and capability.”

She estimated that it will cost $750 million to expand the existing 53-mile virtual fence in Arizona all along that state’s remaining 323 miles of border.

“The new border-security technology plan will utilize existing, proven technology tailored to the distinct terrain and population density of each border region, including commercially available mobile surveillance systems, unmanned aircraft systems, thermal imaging devices and tower-based remote video-surveillance systems,” she said.

“Where appropriate, this plan will also incorporate already existing elements of the former SBInet program that have proven successful, such as stationary radar and infrared and optical sensor towers,” she said.

The department is seeking proposals for a contract for the expanded Arizona project. The Homeland Security report also said it is conducting studies for programs and technology to better secure the entire southwestern border, but noted that it “does not intend to use the existing Boeing contract for procurement of any of the technology systems.”

Boeing spokeswoman Deborah Bosick declined to discuss SBInet beyond a statement the company issued when the contract was canceled:

DHS has made a decision to continue using technology in border security, and we appreciate that they recognize value of the integrated fixed towers Boeing has built, tested and delivered so far. We are proud of the accomplishments of our team and of the unprecedented capabilities delivered in the last year that provide Border Patrol agents increased safety, situational awareness and operational efficiency.”

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