New border surveillance project faces same problems that doomed SBInet

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Security experts say DHS needs a different approach and more acquisition personnel to successfully develop a virtual fence.

With its new request for information on its second attempt to connect video surveillance towers, the Homeland Security Department is following the same path that led to a failed $1 billion virtual fence across part of the Southwest border, several management and security experts told Nextgov.

The RFI, issued Jan. 18, asks vendors to name existing commercial technologies for building integrated fixed towers. The market research is part of the department's new strategy for acquiring proven tools suited to the terrain of each border region. A one-size-fits-all approach did not work for the Secure Border Initiative network, which DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano canceled Jan. 14. SBInet ran over budget, fell behind schedule and encountered performance problems when the region's intense heat destabilized cameras that were components of what was supposed to be a virtual fence of surveillance devices, intelligence databases and communication networks.

But some management specialists say the new plan likely will run into the same hurdles that plagued SBInet, including poor supervision and extreme environments. A better tactic might be to use available defense or industrial systems that have been shown to withstand the heat and rugged terrain of border regions, instead of commercial off-the-shelf products. In addition, the department needs a larger acquisition workforce to effectively oversee the program, they said.

"You're not going to be able to solve border security problems in those extreme conditions both down South and up North using COTS," said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, director of the homeland security and counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The purpose of the border protection project, which DHS began developing with Boeing Co. in 2006, is to detect illegal border activity such as drug smuggling, terrorist-related activity and the movement of undocumented immigrants.

The elements of the new plan, which will be recompeted, include cameras that can automatically identify people, animals, vehicles and other suspicious items, as well as video feeds that allow agents to "classify the threat in terms of group size, whether they are migrant workers, smugglers, etc., and whether they are armed," the RFI stated.

The system also will show the precise location, speed and direction of questionable activity, according to the notice. Contracting officers describe a setup consisting of several towers equipped with a suite of sensors for constant surveillance, communication lines and electrical power.

"Any DHS contractor will probably be overly cautious and some may not even want to participate in this because nobody wants to be Boeing No. 2," Nelson said.

DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler on Wednesday said the department, over the last few years, has met with several vendors as well as representatives from various Defense entities to learn about their existing capabilities.

"We are performing appropriate due diligence to help us define requirements, consider cost and capability, and ensure that we understand exactly what is available to support our needs," he said. "This emphasis on due diligence is part of our response to lessons learned from the past experiences with programs like SBInet," he said.

During the installation of SBInet, a series of reports from the Government Accountability Office and Homeland Security's inspector general warned that inadequate program management jeopardized the project.

Ray Bjorklund, chief knowledge officer at research firm FedSources, said, "If one were to look at the kinds of criticisms that DHS has got from GAO on different contracts -- you would begin to think that there are some challenges DHS is having in managing contracts," such as its delayed financial management system upgrade and costly U.S. Coast Guard Deepwater modernization project. "I just think that fundamentally it points to the lack of sufficient numbers of qualified acquisition personnel when a program starts slipping and sliding," Bjorklund added.

Nelson said, moving forward, it is important that the department use what Boeing already has deployed and "have a more thoughtful acquisition process."

Chandler said Homeland Security "remains strongly committed to strengthening oversight of our major acquisition programs" and noted the fiscal 2011 budget requested significant investments to hire more contract specialists. The new staff would see to it that operational requirements are part of DHS contracts, and create greater accountability.

In addition, DHS Customs and Border Protection recently established an office of technology innovation and acquisition to ensure CBP has enough experienced acquisition personnel to manage large-scale programs, such as the technology deployments along the Southwest border, he said.

To its credit, DHS made the wise decision to survey the marketplace before letting contractors bid, and Napolitano has said she plans to retain elements of the former Boeing project, Nelson and other industry observers noted.

"I see this RFI as a decision by DHS to adopt an incremental approach, and a proven technology approach," said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel for the industry group the Professional Services Council. His one caveat is the department might have a hard time finding commercially available tools that meet all the system specifications under desert conditions, he said. "That [COTS] requirement may not survive in a final RFP," he said.

Bjorklund said non-developmental items from industry or defense production lines are designed to operate in harsh environments, such as chemical plants and battlefields, whereas COTS that are not constructed to accommodate harsh southern or northern weather could explode.

On the border, "if you have a 15 minute gap in coverage, you're going to have a risk," he said.

Bjorklund expects SBInet's replacement program will be worth billions of dollars, but declined to predict a total value without knowing the scope of the implementation plan.

Recognizing long-standing problems with the way agencies buy and manage information technology, the Obama administration recently released a multistep strategy to overhaul IT contracting, and pledged to increase the number of skilled program managers and contracting officers and set up features of large applications in phases to ensure systems work properly before moving on to the next stage.

Chvotkin called SBInet 2 an incremental approach to operations, whereas the first SBInet was an incremental approach to development. Unlike many critics, he said the first project succeeded at testing out technology that could distinguish between people and vehicles. After experimenting, DHS was able to say, "We select fixed-towers as the preferred approach. Now let's see what the capability is of the industry to use those towers," Chvotkin explained.

Comments on the RFI from vendors are due to CBP on Feb. 8. Depending on budget decisions, a formal request for proposals might be issued late this fiscal year, with contracts awarded several months after that, DHS officials recently said.

"It will be interesting to see who comes forward from a vendor perspective, and -- if this turns into an RFP -- who bids on it," Nelson said. "I hope the vendors that respond to the RFI will make [the challenges] clear; that's a very aggressive set of objectives that CBP has put forward. And meeting all those objectives is a pretty significant request."

On Tuesday evening, CBP contracting officers modified the request to add that government officials expect to interview vendors who provide descriptions of existing, fully developed products. "One-on-one discussions are intended to help CBP develop acquisition strategies and solicitations that will ultimately provide the best opportunity for the program to meet its performance objectives," the amendment said.

The notice also displays a copy of a nondisclosure agreement, which support contractors who review the comments will have to sign before reading other companies' responses.

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