The Department of Homeland Security spent $20 million on a “virtual fence” to better secure 28 miles of the Arizona-Mexican border but has no way to measure its effectiveness and never consulted with the field agents who will use the system before it was installed, two House subcommittees learned today.
During a hearing at which some members angrily challenged department officials to say how much it will cost to secure the entire border and when that effort will be completed, U.S. Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar acknowledged that the agency does not “have the means” to measure how many people are crossing illegally into the United States under the new system at the project site.
The virtual fence, which uses high-tech sensors, cameras and other equipment along a 28-mile stretch of U.S.-Mexico border near Sasabe, Ariz., has been highly touted by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and is known as “Project 28.”
Chief Aguilar also confirmed to a joint hearing of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on border, maritime and global counterterrorism and the subcommittee on management, investigations and oversight that the $20.6 million fixed-price contract given to Boeing Co. in September did not allow discussions with the field agents about how the system would best fit their needs — a “problem” he said needs to be fixed.
His admissions came after Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office, said GAO investigators, after visiting the site on three occasions, did not know what criteria the department had used to accept the project and had concluded that field agents were not consulted.
Mr. Stana also said a task order for the project mandated that the system be able to detect 95 percent of the illegal border crossers, which has not been met. He testified that Project 28 did not meet expectations and was not “the ultimate system” that had been envisioned.
Gregory Giddens, executive director of Homeland Security’s Secure Border Initiative (SBI), disputed the figure. He also said that modifications were under way, that the department hoped to alleviate shortfalls in the project this year, and that the agency collected $2.2 million from Boeing for delays in the project.
But Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., New Jersey Democrat, described as “unacceptable” delays in the Project 28 project, along with ongoing efforts to secure the nation’s borders.
“It’s incredible that we are only at where we are in this effort after five-and-a-half years,” he said. “We are 98 yards from the goal line, which is where we started years ago.”
Mr. Pascrell demanded that the Homeland Security officials at the hearing tell him how much it was going to cost taxpayers to secure the borders, but none offered an answer.
“We’re not as stupid as we look,” he said. “After five-and-a-half years into it, someone should be able to answer the question without giving me a bunch of malarkey.”
Rep. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican, also challenged the department officials over the total cost, saying that it was Mr. Chertoff who made Project 28 “a big deal” but that now the committee “can’t get any figures on how much the border fence is going to cost and when it will be done.”
Mr. Stana also told the subcommittees that Homeland Security’s goal of building 370 miles of pedestrian fences and 300 miles of vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of the year as part of the multibillion-dollar SBI program to better secure the nation’s borders may be challenging and more costly than planned.
SBI is a multiyear, multibillion-dollar program aimed at securing the nation’s borders and reducing illegal immigration. It includes programs for a comprehensive border protection system through a mix of pedestrian fences and vehicle barriers, along with radars, sensors, cameras and satellite phones.