'Virtual fence' runs into a virtual stone wall; funds frozen

2010-03-17T00:00:00Z 'Virtual fence' runs into a virtual stone wall; funds frozenBrady McCombs Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 17, 2010 12:00 am  • 

The Department of Homeland Security is pulling in the reins on a high-priced border "virtual fence" system plagued by cost overruns and missed deadlines since its launch four years ago.

Additional funding for the SBInet project will be frozen beyond two systems already going up along the U.S.-Mexico border near Sasabe and Ajo, the agency said Tuesday in a news release. It will also reallocate $50 million originally destined for SBInet to provide border agents with other tested and commercially available security technology.

"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," Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote in the release.

The SBInet program had been allocated $1.1 billion from fiscal 2005 through September 2009 to create and build a border-long network of camera, sensor and radar towers, the Government Accountability Office reported last year.

The Boeing Co. has been the lead contractor.

Virtual fences along the entire Southwest border were supposed to be completed by October 2009. To date, only a flawed test system in Arizona is being used by the Border Patrol, and it would have taken until 2016 to complete a borderwide system, the GAO report found.

In January, Napolitano ordered a departmentwide reassessment of the SBInet program. Funds will be frozen for any future systems until that assessment is complete, the news release said.

The decision to freeze funding should have come years ago, said leaders with the Border Patrol agents union, the National Border Patrol Council.

"It was a complete and total waste of money," said Brandon Judd, executive vice president of Local 2544, the Arizona chapter of the union. "This project should have been scrapped within a year of starting."

Agents in Arizona knew Boeing's test system wouldn't work when they realized in 2007 that it didn't take into account the desert's geography, he said.

"SBInet would have been fantastic if the ground was flat," Judd said. "But it's not. We work in mountains, in canyons, in washes."

Boeing didn't ask Border Patrol agents for input in designing the system, which the union says was a critical mistake. It's an error Homeland Security and its precursors have been committing for decades, said Dave Stoddard, a former Border Patrol supervisor who spent 27 years with the agency.

"It seems like nobody in Washington listens to the boots on the ground who know better," said Stoddard, who calls SBInet a boondoggle.

Without buy-in from the people who will be using a computer system, it's doomed to fail, said Christopher Bronk, a research fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University who has followed SBInet and lectures on computer science.

In a rush to get a system in place, SBInet leaders failed to use sound scientific methods to design and test a system that would work, Bronk said.

"Either you throw buckets of money at this and try to get something out the door quickly," Bronk said, "or you use trial and error, the scientific method, to see what works and what doesn't."

Since taking over in October 2008 as Secure Border Initiative executive director, Mark Borkowski has acknowledged many of the early mistakes, such as not getting Border Patrol input. His office oversees SBInet.

He's embraced a more scientific approach, but that still hasn't been enough to get the first permanent system along 23 miles of the border flanking Sasabe functioning properly.

SBInet officials expected to hand the system over to the Border Patrol at the end of 2009, but that still hasn't occurred as officials continue to troubleshoot problems.

Homeland Security will use $50 million in stimulus funds that was set to go to SBInet to pay for other tested technology for border officers, the release said.

That will include mobile surveillance systems, thermal-imaging devices, ultralight-detection devices, mobile X-ray units, mobile radios, cameras and laptops for vehicles, and remote video-surveillance system enhancement.

The agents union would have preferred that the money be used to hire more agents, especially with expected budget cuts next year.

"As good as technology is, it's incapable of catching a single person or one load of contraband," said T.J. Bonner, president of the Border Patrol agents union, the National Border Patrol Council. "All it does is spot things."

This is not the first time a high-tech border security plan failed.

Homeland Security and its precursors spent $429 million between 1998 and 2005 on border- surveillance systems that were set off by movement of animals, trains and wind, the department's Office of Inspector General reported in 2005.

Sen. John McCain said he was pleased that "Napolitano has decided to instead turn to commercial, available technology that can be used to immediately secure our border from illegal entries. I have been calling for congressional oversight and administrative action on this issue since it became clear that SBInet was a complete failure."

Rep. Bennie Thompson, who leads the House Homeland Security Committee, called the project an expensive disappointment.

"Today's announcement is a recognition that this troubled program needs better management and stronger oversight," the Mississippi Democrat said in a prepared statement.

 

 

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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