Friday, June 12, 2009

Border Bonanza: SBInet

(Second in "Era of Responsibility" on the Border series. First in the series: More Detention Beds.)
President Obama’s economic stimulus – officially the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – is overloading the Southwest border with unneeded infrastructure, lavish technological fixes, and new contingents of federal drug and immigration agents. In the name of “border security,” the administration is injecting more than $400 million in Homeland Security programs on the Southwest Border. At a time when congressional oversight committees and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), as well as the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Homeland Security, expressing major concerns and reservations about the effectiveness, management, and oversight of the technological component of DHS’ Secure Border Initiative (SBI), the Obama administration is providing economic stimulus funds to accelerate SBInet. Among the mounting concerns about the viability of SBInet are these: Unknown Cost: Presenting no hard figures to justify its cost estimate, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has variously estimated that it will cost $6.7 billion or $7.6 billion to establish a technological surveillance system that covers all but one (Marfa) of the Border Patrol sectors along the Southwest border. OIG at DHS, however, cites estimates of $8 to $30 billion for the planned surveillance system that is now widely known as the “virtual fence.” History of Failure: The first deployment of SBInet on the border southwest of Tucson proved worthless. Despite the utter failure of the detection and communications systems by Boeing, the lead contractor for SBInet as well as for the border fence, in its Project 28, DHS told the company to rush the development of a new system, which is currently being installed in the same area. Management Mess: Because of the repeated CBP management failures since 2006 in the planning and implementation of SBInet, the House Homeland Security Committee charged CBP, through a provision in FY 2009 appropriations, with meeting 12 legislative conditions for the release of further appropriated funding ($400 million). A new GAO report (April 2009), building on a series of critical reports about SBInet management, found that CBP met only three of the dozen conditions. A year earlier, GAO had concluded: "Important aspects of SBInet remain ambiguous and in a continued state of flux, making it unclear and uncertain what technology capabilities will be delivered, when and where they will be delivered, and how they will be delivered.” Under the Recovery Act, $100 million of economic stimulus funding is being spent for technological border control. As CBP notes, this funding will contribute to CBP and DHS mission objectives by “accelerating development and deployment of SBNnet technologies on the U.S. southwest border, and modernizing CBP’s inventory of tactical mobile radios.” Specifically, $50 million in Recovery Act funding for SBInet will be used for “surveillance sensor technology,” including towers, cameras, radar equipment, and ground sensors. In its proposal for SBInet, CBP argues that it is fiscally responsible, stating: “CBP takes its stewardship of taxpayer dollars seriously.” What’s more it assures that there will be proper oversight of the controversial project, making no mention of the series of reports over the past three years by the Government Accountability Office criticizing CBP’s failure to provide adequate oversight, direction and evaluation criteria for SBInet. Similar concerns have been expressed by congressional committees responsible for homeland security operations. CBP asserts, however, that the SBInet program has in place the necessary “the end-user coordination, program management controls, management oversight, and external audit activities.” Furthermore, CBP says that is “extensive combination of internal controls and program management objectives “helps to preclude or minimize schedule delays and cost overruns.” Nor does CBP believe that there any obstacles to the effective deployment of SBInet detection and communications problems. “There are no known barriers to the effective implementation of activities associated with the accelerated deployment of SBInet technology components.” CBP, which through its Secure Border Initiative is also responsible for the border fence, also claims that it “takes seriously its stewardship of our Nation’s natural resources.” The “environment” and “sustainability,” says CBP, “will continue to be key considerations for projects under the SBInet program.” In its proposal, CBP couches its justification for the use of stimulus funds for SBInet in the context of national security. As CBP explains, “effective control of the borders will reduce the risk of potential terrorists and instruments of terrorism from entering the United States through our borders.” It also points to the “direct, short-term economic cost of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001” as a justification for stimulus spending on SBInet. In addition to the $27.2 billion in estimated short-term cost of Sept. 11, CBP argues that, in addition the short-term economic impact and the lost of lives, SBInet is economically justified because of the “longer-term impacts to many companies and industry sectors” as well as “increased security and military spending” caused by the Sept. 11 attacks. With SBInet in place, CBP argues it will be able to detect the illegal entry of terrorists, as well as smugglers of humans, drugs, and other contraband.
CBP, Boeing, and border subcontractors are busily installing the second array of towers, cameras, sensors, and microwave transmitters in the border area around Sasabe, Arizona, even as skepticism about CBP's capacity abounds.
(Next: Wish Fulfillment on Border: The Technilogical Fix)

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