Lawmakers hit DHS on electronic border surveillance system

After three years and at least $620 million spent, the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet)  border surveillance system being installed at the United States-Mexico border by the Homeland Security Department isn't fully operational and deadlines have again been pushed back, officials testified today at a House hearing.

House members scolded officials of DHS' U.S. Customs and Border Protection for a pattern of delays to SBInet since work began in September 2006.

“I am particularly concerned by the SBInet program’s ongoing struggle with transparency and the pattern of delaying planned deployments,” Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee's Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism Subcommittee, said at a hearing held by that panel.

The first permanent segment of SBInet, known as Tucson-1, was scheduled to be deployed by the end of 2008. In February 2009, the deadline was pushed back to November 2009. In April 2009, the deadline was moved again to December 2009, Richard Stana, director of homeland security issues for the Government Accountability Office, told the panel.

“SBInet technology capabilities have not yet been deployed, and delays require the Border Patrol to rely on existing technology for securing the border, ” Stana said.

When the SBInet project began in September 2006, the final completion date was to be 2009, and now that deadline has been shifted to 2016, Stana added. A second permanent segment, Ajo-1, in Arizona, will not be operational until June 2010. A 28-mile prototype of SBInet has been helping the border patrol since February 2008.

DHS officials emphasized that they are moving prudently because of lessons learned from the prototype version of SBInet, which was put into operation relatively quickly but with limited capabilities. By conducting additional testing and correcting problems in the lab, the department expects to address remaining technical issues and to deploy an effective system for Tucson-1 and Ajo-1, which together are known as Block 1, David Aguilar, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, testified.

“We believe we are making appropriate progress toward the deployment of SBInet Block 1. Based on the testing that has been performed to date, we have a sound level of engineering confidence that the system will meet its requirements,” Aguilar said.

This is the fourth time the GAO has reported on problems and delays with the SBInet program. Stana blamed the current delays on technical problems detected during final testing of the surveillance technologies and their integration — including cameras, radars and communications equipment — along with delays in getting environmental permits.

DHS is working with the Interior Department to complete environmental assessments for the Ajo-1 segment. Interior officials are expected to issue an opinion on their assessment of possible effects on endangered species by Sept. 22. After those statements are received and, assuming no significant effects are found, construction of towers for Ajo-1 will begin in five days, Stana said.

The GAO said DHS has awarded $1.1 billion in task orders to Boeing, which includes $620 million for SBInet technology and the $440 million for border-vehicle barriers and fencing.

In related work, DHS also has spent $2.4 billion on construction of fencing and vehicle barriers along the southwestern border, Stana said. The physical infrastructure is expected to have a life-cycle costs of $6.5 billion owing to the need to maintain, monitor and repair the fences and structures. However, DHS has not yet assessed the impact of the fencing and barrier projects on SBInet and the border-patrol operations, Stana said.

DHS officials and an executive from Boeing Co., the prime contractor, defended their progress on SBInet. The department has awarded Boeing $1.1 billion for the project to date, but Boeing also has had to absorb some additional expenses on its own. DHS officials recently allocated $100 million in economic stimulus law funds to SBInet.

Members of the subcommittee remained skeptical that the project is moving in the right direction.

“Time and time again, officials from DHS and Boeing have told Congress … the program is on track and the program is ready to go. Time after time again, we have found out that the program is not on track and there are still delays,” said Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.),

Mark Borkowski, executive director of the Secure Border Initiative, who took charge of the project in November 2008, said hindsight has shown that some early decisions and approaches have continued to cause problems for SBInet. Specifically, the program was first conceived as a quick implementation of existing off-the-shelf technologies, he said. In retrospect, it would have functioned better if a customized technology solution was developed to meet the requirements, he said.

“Some of the things we put into place, in hindsight, were not effective,” Borkowski said. “What we bet on, which was probably not a good bet, was that this was like buying a new printer for your computer. …We started the wrong way, in my opinion.”

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala) said work on SBInet should have proceeded more quickly. “This is not rocket science.”