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New manager takes on troubled border security program

In less than four months, the Homeland Security Department will hand off border security programs to a new administration that are over cost, behind schedule and downsized from original plans, according to lawmakers, congressional investigators and industry officials.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Despite three years of work and nearly $1 billion in taxpayer's money, the department's so-called SBInet program has not met goals and expectations, the critics said. The program -- aimed at using technology and traditional fencing to control the nation's borders -- faces even more upheaval and overhaul as a new program manager takes over the reins.

In one of the biggest changes so far, the department had to forgo planned technology investments for the remainder of this year in order to have enough money and time to erect more physical fencing and vehicle barriers by December. Facing a surge in fencing costs, the department notified Congress that it needs to reprogram nearly $400 million to meet its obligations, of which more than $200 million was originally intended for surveillance systems, cameras and computer software. And, most recently, the department notified its SBInet contractor, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, it does not intend to give Border Patrol agents a mobile common operating picture during the next phase of the program, CongressDaily has learned.

In what sources on and off the Hill described as an abrupt but necessary move, Customs and Border Protection announced Sept. 19 it was replacing its manager for the overall Secure Border Initiative with retired Air Force Col. Mark Borkowski. "There is nothing sacrosanct," Borkowski said, referring to his approach to SBInet. "It's clear to me that it looks like [SBInet] lacks focus," he added. "I'm going to presume that what it looks like is accurate and I'm going to act accordingly."

Borkowski said he needs to determine if the SBInet program has the right management structure, authorities and personnel. He said he will review whether Boeing is the right contractor for the program.

Homeland Security and industry officials admit SBInet has had setbacks, but contend the program is not as troubled as it appears. They say the system is operating around the clock in one spot south of Tucson, Ariz., and recently contributed to the seizure of 4,000 pounds of marijuana. And now that the department has made construction of physical fencing a top priority, they say, the program can focus on systems integration and testing before deploying technology for follow-on phases.

But at this point, CBP has informed Boeing it does not intend to give Border Patrol agents a mobile computer in their vehicles that connects them to a common operating picture -- essentially identical displays of visual information, congressional and industry sources said. A congressional aide said lawmakers will have no patience for more problems in follow-on phases, given that the department and Boeing now have more time to test and integrate technology.

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