The Department of Homeland Security's much-maligned border "virtual fence" took another thrashing Thursday from the federal government's investigative arm, further putting the program's future in doubt.
A Government Accountability Office official questioned the cost-effectiveness of the SBInet program that has been allocated about $1 billion over the past five years and has yet to produce a working system. The program has yet to demonstrate whether the time and money spent is a "prudent use of limited resources," said Randolph Hite of the Government Accountability Office in testimony before a House subcommittee.
The GAO has written several in-depth reports about the program since it was launched in 2006 detailing the ongoing technological glitches and delays. It was clear the program was in trouble within months of its start, Hite said.
"It's hard to redirect an iceberg once it's started moving in one direction, and that's what we've been faced with," Hite said.
Arizona has been the proving ground for the systems. A test system that cost $20.7 million went up in 2007 southwest of Tucson, flanking Sasabe. In the past two years, two systems have been constructed along 53 miles of border in southwestern Arizona. Those systems are not yet working.
Homeland Security officials said they understand the frustrations and reiterated the program's future depends on an ongoing reassessment they are conducting.
The assessment will tackle two questions, said Mark Borkowski, executive director of the Secure Border Initiative Program. First, "Is the SBInet system viable?" They'll evaluate that by completing the two systems in Arizona and seeing how they work and how much they cost to develop and maintain, he said.
The second question is, "Even if it works, is it worth it?" Borkowski said. They are comparing SBInet technology to other border security technologies for the answer, he said.
In March, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano froze future funds beyond work on the two Arizona systems and reallocated $50 million from stimulus funds to buy commercially available, stand-alone technology.
Napolitano has "long been concerned by SBInet's continued and repeated cost overruns and missed deadlines, and believes they raise fundamental questions about SBInet's viability and availability to meet the need for technology along the border," said DHS spokesman Matt Chandler in an e-mailed statement.
"Not only do we have an obligation to secure our borders, we have a responsibility to do so in the most cost-effective way possible - which is why Secretary Napolitano has already taken action to address the GAO's recommendations," Chandler wrote.
Border Patrol agents have been using parts of the virtual fence system called "Tucson-1," along 23 miles flanking Sasabe, in limited capacity since February, according to testimony from DHS officials. Officials expect to turn the system over to the Border Patrol for testing in September.
The "Ajo-1" system along 30 miles near Ajo is partially constructed, and officials expect to conduct testing by the end of the calendar year, the testimony shows.
But the GAO said those dates should not be trusted.
"Milestones for the program have continued to be pushed out into the future," Hite said in the hearing. "As a result, we do not have any confidence that the most recent set of program milestones associated with accepting the system will be met."
The missed deadlines are just one of the many problems that have plagued the program, he said. The system's capability has continued to shrink, both geographically and in performance.
Systems that were once expected to cover three Border Patrol sectors, about 655 miles, have been scaled back to cover two sectors covering 387 miles. Performance measures have been relaxed to the point where now the system is deemed acceptable if it identifies 49 percent of items crossing the border, Hite said in testimony.
"As even my two daughters know, 49 percent is not even close to a passing grade," wrote subcommittee Chairman Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas.
DHS officials have not been able to reliably estimate the life-cycle cost of the two systems up in Arizona, called "Block 1," Hite said
"In effect DHS is saying it will have to invest more than $1 billion in SBInet before it will know if doing so is economically justified and cost-effective," he said.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has been questioning the money and time spent on the program for years.
"Four years and $1 billion later, we are still without the plan that was originally envisioned," the Mississippi Democrat said in a prepared statement. "To make matters worse, this was not our first opportunity to get this right."
Thompson was referring to previous high-tech border-security projects that have failed to meet expectations. Homeland Security and its precursors spent $429 million between 1998 and 2005 on border surveillance systems that were set off by the movement of animals, trains and wind, the department's office of inspector general reported in 2005.
"The third time, as they say, was supposed to be a charm," Thompson wrote. "Regrettably, the partnership between DHS and Boeing has produced more missed deadlines and excuses than results."
On StarNet: For information on those who have died attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexican border search the Border Deaths database at go.azstarnet.com/ borderdeaths
To read testimony and reports from Thursday's hearing about Homeland Security's border virtual fence, go to: homeland. house.gov/Hearings/ index.asp?ID=259
Reporter Brady McCombs: 573-4213 or email@example.com