Auditors blast DHS' $1.5 billion border plan

The Government Accountability Office says Homeland Security should halt a new program to secure the U.S.-Mexico border until it calculates a more realistic cost figure.

Federal auditors slammed a $1.5 billion border security program expected to replace a failed virtual fence in Arizona that already has cost taxpayers $1 billion.

Plans for a follow-on to the now-defunct Secure Border Initiative network don't include a believable price estimate and fail to document the rationale for the new strategy in case officials later want to reassess the program, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Friday afternoon.

Customs and Border Protection "has not yet demonstrated the effectiveness and suitability of its new approach for deploying surveillance technology in Arizona," wrote Richard Stana, the report's author and GAO director for homeland security and justice issues. The purpose of the program is to monitor the southwest border for signs of drug smuggling, illegal immigration, terrorism and other criminal activity. "By taking steps to document how, where, and why it plans to deploy specific combinations of technology prior to its acquisition and deployment, CBP could be better positioned to minimize performance risks," he added.

CBP, part of the Homeland Security Department, has requested $242 million in project funding for fiscal 2012 and anticipates spending $1.5 billion on new systems for the Arizona border alone over the program's 10-year life cycle.

On Monday, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., who requested the audit, said, "This GAO report is helpful in identifying continuing problems with CBP's use of technology along the border. What remains most concerning is the fact that the Obama Administration has yet to present a comprehensive plan for securing our borders, which should be done through the integration of border patrol staffing, technology, and fencing."

Senators recently proposed docking border technology funding by $128 million because of delays in deploying systems along the southwest region, a spending committee aide pointed out on Monday.

The full Senate Appropriations Committee in September approved a measure that would provide $400 million for border security fencing, infrastructure and technology, instead of $528 million, because the completion date of the Arizona project "is four years later than the estimated deployment of technology along the entire Southwest Border as originally envisioned by the now cancelled SBInet," a report accompanying the legislation states. "The reduction is based on high levels of unobligated balances," including $440 million as of July 31.

A House Appropriations Committee staffer said the panel's policy is not to comment on items that members have yet to negotiate with Senators.

The new criticisms mirror some of the negative reviews for SBInet that eventually led to that program's demise. In 2005, government leaders had imagined erecting a virtual fence of linked towers mounted with sensors that would convey directional radar data and camera images to border patrol agents. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano scuttled the program in January 2011 after more than 26 audits pointed to cost overruns, schedule slippages and technological malfunctions.

The follow-on project, which has not been awarded to a vendor yet, will cover all but 53 miles of the Arizona border -- which will continue to be protected by existing SBInet infrastructure -- and the rest of the southwest border.

The first phase, referred to as the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology program, is supposed to finish off the state's border with interconnected towers, video and mobile surveillance systems, handheld tools, and remote ground sensors. "According to CBP officials, though similar, the [integrated fixed-tower] systems equipment will be simpler when compared with the equipment for the tower systems deployed under SBInet," the report stated.

Homeland Security pulled incumbent contractor Boeing off project development in 2011.

The new program already is falling below expectations, according to GAO officials.

Last January, Napolitano said she expected to provide agents with a complete view of the Arizona border by 2014, but DHS officials have no way of knowing if they are on target to meet that objective, GAO officials said. "CBP officials have not yet defined the expected benefits or developed measurable and quantifiable performance metrics that would show progress toward achieving that goal," Stana wrote, so the "approach is at an increased risk of not accomplishing its goal in support of Arizona border security."

While Border Patrol might not yet have the technology in place to detect all illegal entries, it should have, for example, established a yardstick to measure progress toward increasing the probability of detection, the report stated.

Meanwhile, the cost of this work is unknown. CBP officials did not calculate how much money may be needed to cover unavoidable project changes, according to GAO officials. "The estimate for the plan is likely to be unrealistic because it does not assess the variability in the cost estimate from such effects as schedules slipping, missions changing, and proposed solutions' not meeting users' needs," the report noted.

Ray Bjorklund, chief knowledge officer at market research firm Deltek, said the findings could delay the project by at least a year, especially with Congress reluctant to pay for risky projects.

"It will take a while to build up some credibility in the process" Homeland Security has proposed, he said. "This is a really serious time for budget. I think that's where the program could really get derailed: Everybody's out to cut. Cut, cut, cut."

DHS officials were unable to comment by late Monday afternoon.