Looking beyond borders
America's Shield holds lucrative promise, risks
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Jul 17, 2005
It is one of the Homeland Security Department's most tantalizing, big-ticket, system integration projects on the horizon ? but it's been stalled for months as Congress and federal officials review the goals of the department and examine allegations of mismanagement in a related legacy system.
Despite the delays, contractors appear to be hanging tough in preparing to bid for the $2.5 billion America's Shield Initiative. Their interest is sustained not only because the need is so urgent, but also by several recent developments that may spur the program's progress.
America's Shield will integrate cameras, sensors and other devices and technologies deployed along thousands of miles of borders to assist Customs and Border Patrol officials prevent unauthorized entry. It will incorporate the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, which comprises more than 200 video cameras operating along U.S. borders.
A PUBLIC CRY
"The citizenry is demanding this," said Ron Whitt, director of strategic marketing for Applied Innovation Inc., a network management solutions company in Columbus, Ohio. "I have no doubt it will go forward."
Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. as well as many smaller vendors are among the companies interested in the procurement.
"This is a national asset-class system," said Bruce Walker, Northrop Grumman's director of homeland security. "There is a very real need for a system like this."
"All the major systems integrators have this on their radar," said Scott McMurray, vice president for Information Systems Support Inc. of Gaithersburg, Md.
Following a meeting with industry about America's Shield in August 2004, and testimony from DHS officials in March and April 2005 to support the fiscal 2006 budget request of $51 million, departmental communications about the program have been sparse. But that period of relative silence may be ending.
On June 16, a House subcommittee held a hearing on a General Services Administration inspector general's report detailing mismanagement allegations about the existing border video-surveillance system dating back to its launching in 1998. The charges concern a lack of oversight for the program as it mushroomed from $2 million to more than $200 million in procurement costs, and as incorrect equipment was purchased and improperly installed or not installed at all. It faulted GSA's Federal Technology Service for awarding contracts without competition, among other problems.
Joe Saponaro, an executive at New York-based L-3 Communications Inc., which took over the contract when it purchased the original contractor in 2002, defended its actions at the hearing and said the audit results were incorrect.
A second investigative report on the surveillance cameras is expected this month from the DHS inspector general, according to Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.
"We should not move forward on America's Shield until we get to the bottom of the problems with the existing system," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Management, Integration and Oversight, told Washington Technology.
Rogers and several other committee members are considering a visit to border sites in Arizona and Washington in August to view the camera installations.
But now that most of the problems with the existing system have been identified and action is taking place to correct them, some contractors are hopeful the worst news has passed.
"The industry view is that this has not been so damaging," said a senior IT executive who asked to remain anonymous.
Also renewing hopes of a quicker launch date is that Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff, who took charge in March, is expected within days to release his comprehensive review of the department's operations and goals.
That upcoming review also is likely to have stalled movement on America's Shield, and its completion will likely move things forward, industry sources said.
Next month is the scheduled release date for a request for proposals for America's Shield, according to research firm Input Inc., Reston, Va.
Industry officials are unsure how realistic that release date is, considering that it has been postponed several times.
"We are hoping for a request for proposals in the fall," said Marcy Bartlett, project director for Lockheed Martin.
The investigation into the surveillance program may heighten the perception that the country needs the most sophisticated systems integration program for its border sensors and cameras.
Ultimately, that could work in favor of major systems integrators such as Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.
"The awareness has been brought to the forefront that a national rollout of a border surveillance system is much more challenging and more complex [than was thought]," Bartlett said. "It would need to be managed with a very disciplined approach, a full-blown integration rather than a piecemeal approach."
"We're tailor-made for a program like this," Northrop Grumman's Walker said. "It has the characteristics requiring depth and breadth of skills."
Of course, the procurement won't be without bumps. One problem the contract winner will face is coping with cameras that apparently have not been maintained since DHS canceled the maintenance contract in September 2004.
"Where properly maintained, the system is operational today," Saponaro, president of L-3's government services division, testified at the June 16 hearing. "However, as with any high-technology system exposed to the environment, remote video surveillance cannot be expected to operate continuously without regular maintenance. It will, in time, cease to function."
Walker said that maintenance of the deployed camera system, and its migration to the new America's Shield system, will be critical.
"As a country we cannot afford to leave the borders unattended," Walker said. "We have to take what we have and make it work."
Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.