Lawmakers expect DHS to cancel troubled border security program

SBInet contract has encountered cost, schedule and performance problems.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., says DHS needs a better strategy for securing the Southwest border. Kevin Dietsch/Landov

Incoming Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee expect Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will soon cancel the stalled $1.1 billion Secure Border Initiative Network contract with Boeing Co., committee aides said. The border security technology program, known as SBInet, has experienced serious cost, schedule and performance problems since the contract was awarded in 2006.

Aides blamed both the Homeland Security Department and Boeing for the problems, and said lawmakers are concerned the government could lose investments in research and development should Boeing be pulled off the project.

Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., the presumed committee chairman, intends to press the Obama administration for an aggressive timetable for securing the Southwest border with technology and fencing, said aides for King.

In addition, members want to hear how DHS plans to leverage expertise the department and Boeing have gained over the past several years, aides said.

In January, Napolitano froze funding for the troubled project and launched a reassessment of the border security program. DHS officials on Thursday said that review was not yet complete, but they anticipated briefing Congress on a way forward and announcing a decision on SBInet shortly.

GOP and Democratic members of the committee are expecting word from Napolitano as early as next week about the future of the program, often referred to as a virtual fence designed to reduce drug smuggling, illegal immigration and terrorist-related activity across U.S. land borders.

"Eleven months after announcing a moratorium on SBInet spending, the administration still has not presented a strategy to gain control of the border. DHS needs to come forward with a strategy that incorporates both integrated technology and additional fencing," King said. January 2011 will mark the first time DHS has to answer to House Republicans on SBInet problems.

Aides for outgoing committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said they, too, are anxious to learn Napolitano's next move, following the department's decision in September to not renew a one-year option it awarded Boeing in fall 2009. The aides said the department has been granting month long extensions to retain the company while it determines the project's future. The program's original designs included a connected array of surveillance tools, intelligence databases and communications links that would provide DHS headquarters and field operations with a complete picture of border activity. Government officials selected the Southwest border, Arizona in particular, as a starting point for the system because they consider that section to be most vulnerable to security threats.

Napolitano has since shifted the money pegged for the Arizona sector -- $50 million -- to proven technologies, including mobile surveillance units, thermal imaging devices, laptops and cameras for vehicles and radios. Aides for King said Republicans do not oppose moving forward with such stand-alone equipment, but not on an ad hoc basis. Members want to see a roadmap with imminent deadlines for linking the tools.

Separately, the Office of Management and Budget plans to announce contracting reforms Nov. 19. The new guidance on IT purchases is intended to avoid the kind of cost overruns, schedule slips and performance problems SBInet has encountered.

Industry leaders involved in discussions with OMB officials shaping the reforms said the new guidelines are expected to require project managers to report more frequently on progress and to alert chief information officers promptly when programs experience cost, schedule or performance problems. Extreme cases would trigger remedial actions, including cancellation. This summer, OMB also called for agencies to break many major information technology projects into smaller ones that can be deployed more rapidly and cheaply.

Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, director of the homeland security and counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said canceling the project at this stage could be very costly. DHS would lose Boeing's institutional knowledge in the area of border security, he said, adding, "Whether you like it or not, Boeing understands that area more than any contractor out there."

Nelson said simply condemning Boeing for the program's flaws is shortsighted.

"It's a major program. Like any other major program, you can't expect it to produce immediate results," he said. If the government opts for a lower-tech version of SBInet, "you're not going to be able to protect the northern border or much of the southern border with guys in patrol cars."

The Homeland Security Department is responsible for the project management failures, Nelson added.

"Until the homeland security enterprise does a better job at articulating its requirements, the contractors aren't going to be able to perform" as well as DHS would like, he said. "Let's realize that DHS was new and didn't have the experience and didn't have the capability to manage a major program. Let's not punish industry. If DHS was 30 years into its life and Boeing did this, it's a different story."