Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Department of Homeland Security spent $20 million on a “virtual fence” to better secure 28 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona 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 yesterday.

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 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, south of Tucson.

The virtual fence, known as “Project 28,” uses high-tech sensors, cameras and other technology along a 28-mile stretch of the border near Sasabe, Ariz. It has been highly touted by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Chief Aguilar also confirmed at 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 on how the system would best fit their needs — a “problem” he said that needs to be fixed.

He said future projects in Yuma, Ariz., and El Paso, Texas, will include increased input from Border Patrol personnel. They are expected to be completed by the end of 2011.

His admissions came after Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice issues at the GovernmentAccountability Office, said that after visiting the site on three occasions, GAO investigators did not know what criteria the department used to accept the project and concluded that field agents were not consulted.

He said not all of the Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector, all part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), have been trained on Project 28, although the system is expected to be replaced.

Mr. Stana also said a task order for the project mandated that the system be able to detect 95 percent of people crossing the border illegally, which had not been met. He said the project did not meet expectations and was not “the ultimate system” that had been envisioned.

He also said 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 this year as part of the multibillion-dollar Secure Border Initiative (SBI) may be more challenging and costly than planned.

“Meeting deadlines has been difficult because of various factors including difficulties in acquiring rights to border lands,” he said.

“Moreover, CBP officials are unable to estimate the total cost of pedestrian and vehicle fencing because they do not yet know the type of terrain where the fencing is to be constructed, the materials to be used and the cost to acquire the land.”

Gregory Giddens, executive director of SBI, said modifications were under way and the department hoped to alleviate shortfalls in Project 28 this year. He said the agency collected $2.2 million from Boeing for project delays.

But Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., New Jersey Democrat, described the delays as “unacceptable” and asked why the department did not know ahead of time that most of the property on which it plans to build a fence is privately owned.

“We are 98 yards from the goal line, which is where we started 5 1/2 years ago,” said Mr. Pascrell, demanding that Homeland Security say how much it was going to cost taxpayers to secure the nation’s borders. None of the three department officials at the hearing had an answer.

“After 5 1/2 years, someone should be able to answer the question without a bunch of malarkey,” he said.

Rep. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican, said it was Mr. Chertoff who made Project 28 “a big deal” but the committee “can’t get any figures now on how much the border fence is going to cost and when it will be done.”

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.

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