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Homeland Security kills secure border tech program

The Homeland Security Department has killed its beleaguered $1.1 billion program to control U.S. land borders with a virtual fence made up of surveillance tools, Secretary Janet Napolitano announced on Friday, after briefing Congress on her review of the Secure Border Initiative network program.

DHS officials had encountered major cost, schedule and operational problems with the system ever since entering a development pact with Boeing Co. in 2006. The department has decided it will cease construction of SBInet as originally conceived and recompete contracts to embark on a new technology plan.

The strategy will build off currently deployed tools tailored to the terrain and population density of each border region. Apparatus will include mobile surveillance units, unmanned aircraft, thermal imaging devices and remote video surveillance systems mounted on towers.

"There is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution to meet our border technology needs, and this new strategy is 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," Napolitano 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."

A year ago, Napolitano stopped funding SBInet pending a review of the program, which had been envisioned as a way to stem drug smuggling, illegal immigration and terrorist-related activity across U.S. land borders. DHS had been renewing Boeing's contract month-to-month since the fall, when the department chose not to reassign a one-year extension it had awarded the vendor in fall 2009.

The original project concept included monitoring devices, intelligence databases and communication links that would allow DHS headquarters and field offices a full view of border activity.

Democrats and Republicans had been pressing DHS to issue a verdict on the program's fate, which they expected to be canceled. But they had reservations about losing investments in research and development that the department has made during the past several years, as well as expertise Boeing and the government have gained.

The new strategy will tap funding previously allocated for SBInet, Napolitano said. DHS "intends to acquire all the technologies in the new plan, including the integrated fixed towers, through full and open competition," she added. "Independent, quantitative, science-based assessments will continue along each sector of the Southwest border in 2011 to determine the optimal combination of technology for each region."

Government officials initially picked Arizona as a starting point for installation because they consider that region to be most vulnerable to security threats. But the technology covered only 53 miles as of last year, according to Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, who had criticized the program when he commanded oversight of DHS last year.

On Friday, Thompson applauded the move to scrap the network. "The SBInet program has been a grave and expensive disappointment since its inception," he said in a statement.

"I am glad that DHS and [Customs and Border Patrol] are finally listening to what we have been saying for years -- that the sheer size and variations of our borders show us a one-stop solution has never been best," Thompson added. "I applaud them for taking this critical step toward using a more tailored technologically based approach to securing our nation's borders."

But Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the new chairman of the committee, is not satisfied with the revised, lengthy timetable for rollout.

"While I understand the Department of Homeland Security decision to end the SBInet program, I continue to have very serious concerns about the Obama administration's lack of urgency to secure the border," he said. "It has taken DHS a full year to make the final decision to cancel the program. Now today, we learn that DHS will spend all of 2011, and maybe longer, deciding what to do next."

King called for federal officials to present a comprehensive plan to secure the country's borders, incorporating fencing, sufficient staffing and technology. "I expect the administration, in its upcoming 2012 budget proposal, to put forward such a plan, including timelines and metrics," he added.

Senate Democrats also praised the strategy to outfit each region with customized reinforcements.

"The secretary's decision to terminate SBInet ends a long-troubled program that spent far too much of the taxpayers' money for the results it delivered," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "The department's decision to use technology based on the particular security needs of each segment of the border is a far wiser approach, and I hope it will be more cost effective."

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