Costs Could Climb for $1.5 Billion Terrorist Tracking System

Mark J. Terrill/AP file photo

A planned upgrade of a DHS database at the heart of the nation's effort to thwart foreign threats keeps going back to the drawing board.

A planned $1.5 billion upgrade of a computer database at the heart of the nation's effort to thwart terrorists now has no foreseeable end-date or final cost estimate, according to government auditors.

The Treasury Enforcement Communications System is the main Homeland Security Department system that Customs and Border Protection personnel use to screen foreigners against myriad watchlists, and it manages case files for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE assignments tracked include money-laundering probes, online pornography investigations, and phone data analyses.

Originally built in the 1980s before DHS existed, TECS requires excessive support just to keep obsolete mainframe-technology running. Program offices within CBP and ICE are simultaneously modernizing their respective portions of the system but they have become seriously lost on the path to a hoped-for September 2015 completion, according to the Government Accountability Office.

"After spending millions of dollars and over 4 years on TECS modernization, it is unclear when it will be delivered and at what cost," David Powner, GAO's director for information technology management issues, wrote in a new audit.

Every day, the antiquated system screens more than 900,000 visitors and roughly 465,000 vehicles. To use the system, CBP personnel must log in to a dedicated TECS computer. The upgrade is supposed to provide users with Web browser access, among other things.

After discovering that ICE's redesign is not technically viable, agency officials now are overhauling the scope, schedule and cost of their section, previously pegged at $818 million. The glitches they encountered affected usability, access control, and case-related data management.

Development of the ICE part of TECS is mostly on hold for now, according to the audit. "It will be January 2014 at the earliest before any new development work begins," Powner wrote. "ICE cannot say what specific features it will release to users, what its schedule for deploying this functionality will be, or how much such efforts will cost. Without clearly defining these commitments, ICE is at risk of not achieving independence from the existing system by 2015."

CBP is not in a good position either. Agency officials can't figure out the amount of time needed to finish their portion, once priced at $724 million. Part of the project involves tweaking search algorithms to more accurately match names derived from foreign alphabets and eliminating gaps in recordkeeping that might miss a person of interest.

The border agency is rewriting the cost and schedule for the second time in less than a year, according to GAO.

Exacerbating the problems "is the fact that CBP has not fully developed its master schedule to manage work activities and to monitor the program’s progress," Powner wrote. When one element of the project falls behind, CBP officials can't determine how the delay will affect progress on the whole effort, he said.

On the agency's master schedule, about 65 percent of the outstanding work is not timed with associated work activities. "Without these linkages, activities that slip early in the schedule do not transmit delays to activities that should depend on them, and a critical path cannot be determined, which means that management is unable to determine how a slip in the completion date of a particular task may affect the overall project schedule," Powner wrote.

Homeland Security officials disagree with GAO and in a response to a draft of the report said they believe the current calendar provides sufficient visibility into program work by illustrating the timing and sequence of activities, as well as their interdependencies.

While acknowledging project construction problems, DHS officials are sticking by a commitment to finish by the 2015 deadline. They noted one success already: The full deployment of a feature that makes it easier to enter data for "secondary inspections" of travelers who are pulled aside for further questioning.

"While program planning and execution can always be improved CBP TECS Mod has strong schedule, risk and requirements management in place, which have helped deliver functionality to end users," Jim Crumpacker, director of the DHS GAO-Office of Inspector General Liaison Office, wrote in a Nov. 12 response to the draft. "Regarding the ICE TECS Mod Program, DHS agrees that more progress needs to be made in deploying this modernized case management system."