DHS comes clean

Details on budget, staffing released on SBI

The Homeland Security Department's border security program, now under intensive scrutiny by Congress and executive-branch auditors, has issued newly detailed plans containing cost estimates, performance metrics and project descriptions that the oversight agencies seek.

Two Secure Border Initiative plans contain cost estimates in the $7 billion to $8 billion range for activities through 2011, which alone would serve as a headline figure. But more important, the documents detail how SBI-Net planners arrived at those estimates.

DHS officials came under fire this fall for awarding the main systems integration contract for the program to the Boeing Co. before they had completed their budget and technical plans. Some critics said DHS had, in effect, handed Boeing a blank check. The new reports provide many of the details DHS officials had promised.

During a recent hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee's subcommittee on Management, Integration and Oversight, Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), who likely will become chairman in January, joined others on the committee in citing the risks apparent in SBI-Net's scant plans and reliance on contract bidders for detailed proposals on how best to achieve the program's goals.

Meek said the oversight would afford answers "when other members [of Congress] ask about what had happened with SBI-Net when it is above the fold" of the newspaper front page as a failure.

In the same hearing, DHS' inspector general Richard Skinner cited several risks built into the SBI-Net contract and management structure.

Skinner testified that DHS might lack the management ability to build SBI-Net, and that the inspector general's office had established a special oversight team to review the program. SBI-Net Program Manager Greg Giddens assured lawmakers that he would present detailed program plans this month.

The Dec. 1 Secure Border Strategic Plan is that plan. DHS had estimated SBI-Net spending through 2011 at $7.6 billion. A more detailed draft blueprint dated Dec. 4 pegged its cost through 2011 at upward of $8 billion.

Common view

The Dec. 4 SBI-Net Expenditure Plan, drafted by the Customs and Border Protection Directorate, for example, describes the SBI-Net Program Office's intent to develop a common operating picture that will, among other things, reduce the sensor-to-sheriff lag time.

The plan assigns $12 million to the task of building an initial common operating picture design by next month, and completing it by April, which is when southwestern land border sectors would receive the "Spiral 1" version of the operating picture system.

The system's designers will be required to support technology to help plan, execute and evaluate several missions simultaneously. A common operating picture also will be required to inform Customs and Border Protection and other DHS agencies of the strategic impact of mission results, according to the plan.

A major part of this common operating picture technology will be the introduction of Iridium satellite telephones for all agents, as well as computer technology installed in the agents' vehicles, the plan stated.

The Dec. 4 plan, and its higher cost estimate, resulted from a congressional mandate in the fiscal 2007 DHS appropriations bill calling for a detailed expenditure plan approved by the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget and other agencies.

Congress required that the report include an estimate for securing operational control of the entire border, which is a somewhat larger mission than that envisioned by the Dec. 1 Strategic Plan.

The Dec. 1 strategy overview includes a matrix of dozens of computer systems, most of which exist, that figure in the border project's three-stage plan.

The plan reflects officials' intent to beef up technology for immigration law enforcement. For example, DHS will expand the use of the Basic Pilot program, a voluntary system employers can use to verify the employment eligibility of newly hired workers.

Basic Pilot employee queries have increased from 1 million in 2005 to 1.7 million in 2006, DHS said. The number of employers participating in the Basic Pilot program has increased to 11,474 from 5,899 last year, according to the report.

DHS expects to expand Basic Pilot to all 7 million employers in the country under pending immigration reform legislation.

Technology analyst James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, noted that one factor affecting the border control program is that "the heat surrounding immigration issues has gone down since the election."

"If the department can show some progress in slowing the flow [of illegal aliens] and reducing the crime along the border, they can cite those as SBI-Net successes," he said.

Lewis said that while the individual components of an SBI-Net border system exist, the program's success will hinge on how well systems integrator Boeing weaves them together.

One industry source familiar with comparably ambitious federal technology integration projects noted, "It's like having a baby. During the pregnancy, everybody is focused on the first nine months. After the baby is born, people realize that they now face a 21-year responsibility."

The industry technologist predicted that because border threats, including crime, terrorism and smuggling, will evolve, SBI-Net must be flexible enough to provide technological responses.

"One aspect of this problem reflects the military's battlefield technology goal of reducing the time from sensor to shooter," the industry technologist said. "Along the border, the comparable goal would be to reduce the time between sensor [detecting a border violation] and the sheriff."

Wilson Dizard is a senior writer with Government Computer News. He can be reached at wdizard@postnewsweektech.com.

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