No Finish in Sight for ‘Virtual’ Border Fence

Jeffrey Anderson, Washington Times, March 1, 2010

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. {snip}

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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