DHS official thinks future of virtual border fence project is bleak

Executive director of the Secure Border Initiative says the electronic surveillance program 'already doesn't look like a wise thing to do.'

The Homeland Security Department likely will cancel a program to install sensors and cameras to detect illegal immigrants entering the United States from Mexico, and possibly pursue projects that are tailored to specific areas along the border, the head of the Secure Border Initiative told Congress on Thursday

Mark Borkowski, executive director of SBInet at the Homeland Security Department, told a joint meeting of the House Subcommittee on Management, Investigations and Oversight, and the Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism that the original plan to deploy the program along the entire border is unlikely.

SBInet is a network of sensors, cameras, radar and control towers that can detect individuals crossing into the United States from Mexico. It is the technology component of the department's overall Secure Border Initiative, which also includes fencing that will be erected along the U.S. southern and northwestern borders.

"Is that the right technology in the right places, or are there better mixes and matches? Can we come up with something that's a little more rational, that's tailored to each area of the border?" Borkowski said. "My expectation is that we would not end up with SBInet along the border. Already that doesn't look like a wise thing to do."

SBInet has been troubled almost from the moment DHS awarded the initial $2.5 billion contract to Boeing Co. in September 2006. Delays, cost overruns and performance issues mounted until January 2010, when DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered an assessment of SBInet to determine if it should continue. Homeland Security is measuring the progress of the initial deployment of equipment to determine whether or not the department can expand the network along the entire U.S.-Mexican border, and if so, if it's worthwhile. DHS expects to have initial results of the assessment this month.

But even without the completion of the study, Borkowski's comments on Thursday indicate the likely end of the project. "First, we need to become convinced that the program is even viable," Borkowski said. "Second, we need to become convinced that if it is, it's the right way to spend money. Even if it works, is it worth it?"

In March, Napolitano froze spending on the project until the assessment could be completed, and she reallocated $50 million of Recovery Act funding earmarked for SBInet's first phase in the Tucson and Ajo, Ariz., areas to technologies that have a better track record. DHS has bought remote video-surveillance systems, truck-mounted cameras and radar, thermal imaging devices, and cameras and laptops for pursuit vehicles, Borkowski said.

Although Borkowski did not reveal results of the assessment, a Government Accountability Office report released in May, which was referenced during the hearing, stated the capabilities of the first incremental phase of SBInet "have continued to shrink from what the department previously committed to deliver."

For example, the geographical footprint for the initial phase was reduced from about 655 miles to about 387 miles, and the technology performance standards were loosened to require the systems be able to detect and identify suspicious border crossings 49 percent of the time, instead of the original 90 percent rate.

GAO also found Homeland Security had not developed a reliable schedule for delivering the first phase of SBInet or demonstrated its cost effectiveness. The report pointed to limitations in defined requirements and the capabilities of commercially available components, as well as the need to address competing program priorities as reasons for program failures.

"There was a lack of understanding and over-optimism about what could be delivered," said Randolph Hite, director of IT architecture and systems issues at GAO. "This program was in trouble months after it was started, and spiraled downhill after that. Despite bringing in more capabilities to address these [challenges], it's hard to redirect an iceberg once it's started to move in the wrong direction."

If the current SBInet is canceled, DHS must decide what it will do with the hardware, which under the terms of the contract with prime contractor Boeing the department would own. Borkowski said the equipment that has been deployed likely will continue to operate at whatever level is effective, but no additional systems will be built.

Rep. Chris Carney, D-Pa., chairman of the Management, Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee, asked DHS to provide within 30 days the best and worst-case scenarios of the cost and time required to stand up SBInet, and a schedule of testing for the initial phase of deployment that is still under way.

"We're going to have to vote on immigration reform, and we can't do that until we understand [what kind of] operational control we have of the border," Carney said. "Hopefully, this is as frustrating for you as it is for us."

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