As I break down in my Sunday print exclusive story, Homeland Security is trading Star Wars for simplicity in its latest border technology strategy. Instead of a one-size-fits-all network of camera and radar towers, the agency will tailor unique plans for the different stretches of the geographically diverse, 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border by choosing from a menu of technology.
This new plan constitutes the third major effort since 1998 by the agency and its precursors to develop a border technology plan that is efficient and cost-effective. The federal government spent about $1.5 billion on the first two plans over those 13 years, getting questionable return at best.
The latest program, called SBInet, was officially cancelled in January by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano after an assessment of the program determined it was not cost-efficient. The Goverment Accountability Office issued several scathing reports about the program over its six-year run, including one last June that laid out all the problems the Boeing-led program had experienced from the start.
"It's hard to redirect an iceberg once it's started moving in one direction, and that's what we've been faced with," said the Randolph Hite of the Government Accountability Office in testimony before a House subcommittee on June 17, 2010.
Though new leadership at Homeland Security say they've learned from past failures, some are skeptical due to the past failures.
"Every time a program fails, they change the name," said Robert Lee Maril, a professor of sociology at East Carolina University who wrote a book about the previous failures. "They tend to never admit there are any mistakes but then go on and get additional funding for programs that didn't work."
My story includes detailed explanations of the gadgets they will be using, most of which are arleady in use along the border. They include the truck-mounted mobile surveillance systems I wrote about a year ago and the unmanned aerial systems I wrote about last November. Descriptions of the other items can be found in the story.
Read for yourself and decide what you think about the new plan.
And if you want even more detailed information, here are a few links where you can find more details about the new initiative, being dubbed the "Alternative (Southwest) Border Technology" plan:
• Goverment Accountability Office report: "Preliminary observations on the status of key southwest border technology programs." (March 15, 2011)
• Congressional testimony from Customs and Border Protection officials about new border technology plan (March 15, 2011)
• Executive summary of Homeland Security's assessment of the recently-cancelled SBInet virtual fence program.
• House Committee on Homeland Security subcommittee hearing: “Strengthening the Border – Finding the Right Mix of Personnel, Infrastructure and Technology” (March 15, 2011)