Homeland Security buys time to decide fate of border project

Department extends troubled SBInet contract for 30 days rather than committing to another full year.

The Homeland Security Department has bought itself time to decide whether to proceed with a beleaguered border security project by retaining the system's contractor on a temporary 30-day basis, according to House lawmakers who requested an audit of the program.

In 2006, DHS awarded Boeing Co. a three-year contract with several optional one-year extensions to roll out the Secure Border Initiative Network, in the hope of establishing better detection of illegal breaches at U.S. points of entry. The network was to feature an array of surveillance technologies, including cameras, radars, sensors and customized situational awareness software.

But the program has gained little ground, with deployments at only two Arizona patrol stations. The House Homeland Security Committee requested several independent reviews of the problems plaguing the $1.1 billion project, including one the Government Accountability Office released on Monday. In the report, GAO officials criticized DHS for lax oversight of Boeing.

A staffer for the committee said Monday's findings did not surprise members and they expect DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano will decide to halt installation of the sophisticated surveillance tools across the Southwest border. In September 2009, DHS prolonged Boeing's contract by exercising a one-year option. But when that expired, the department allowed a 30-day extension rather than granting another one-year renewal, according to committee aides.

Lawmakers are awaiting feedback from DHS on how the department wants to proceed with the program and the contractor, the staffer said. The committee considers the temporary extension a sign that all is not well and that DHS either will discard plans for the sophisticated technologies or replace Boeing.

Essentially, the question is whether to carry on with a Cadillac version of the network where cameras, radar and other tools are all talking to each other, or to exchange it for a Chevy model that gets the job done faster, the staffer said.

Since fiscal 2006, Congress has provided Homeland Security with about $1.02 billion for SBInet, and the department has obligated about $850 million to contractors, according to Monday's GAO report.

"Overall, DHS has not done an effective job of managing and overseeing its prime contractor, including monitoring the contractor's performance," GAO officials wrote. The oversight situation "combined with the many other acquisition management weaknesses that we have previously reported about and made recommendations to address, have produced a program that to date has not been successful, and if not corrected, can become worse."

Auditors found DHS routinely received incomplete and anomalous program status reports from Boeing, which the department then relied on to project costs and schedules. "As a result, DHS has not been able to gain meaningful and proactive insight into potential cost and schedule performance shortfalls, and thus take corrective actions to avoid shortfalls in the future," they said.

In a written response to a draft of the report, DHS officials rejected the characterization of inconsistent status reports. "The SBI program office demands accurate contractor performance reports, and is continuously engaged with the contractor to fix underlying problems," wrote Jerald Levine, director of Homeland Security's GAO liaison office. "The draft report fails to distinguish between factual errors versus legitimate monthly accounting adjustments."

On Tuesday, DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler said U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the department, concurred with the general recommendations.

"Since the draft report was issued, CBP has taken several major steps to improve the SBInet program management structure, capabilities, procedures and processes, in addition to the departmentwide reassessment of the program ordered by Secretary Napolitano . . . to determine if there are alternatives that may more efficiently, effectively and economically meet our nation's border security needs," he said.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is withholding judgment on the future of SBInet until the secretary announces her verdict, spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said on Tuesday.

"But he has long advocated for more competition in government contracting and hopes that the final decision includes a competitive bidding process for further implementation of border security technology programs," she added.