Human rights, racial profiling, social costs,and justice are among the leading concerns of the critics of toughening immigration and border enforcement policies. The immense cost of the immigrant crackdown and new border security programs rarely is mentioned as a reason why U.S. citizens should oppose the buildup by the Department of Homeland Security in the budgets of the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Another curious feature of the immigration policy debate is that immigration advocates are generally mum on the advisability of integrated electronic surveillance infrastructure on the border. While speaking out and protesting the border fence, liberal immigration reform advocates tend to give a pass on the so-called “virtual fence” – the $6.7 billion project to deploy cameras and sensors along the southwest border in what the Border Patrol calls SBInet (Secure Border Initiative Net).
It’s a project that has come under repeated harsh criticism by the General Accounting Office and the Inspector General of DHS, It is also generally considered a giant boondoggle by immigration restrictionist groups that prefer a phystical fence.
In contrast, immigrant advocates have been mostly silient during the long history of the Border Patrol’s attempts to mount a technical barrier at the border. As candidates, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton said that they preferred a technical fence to a real one – despite the long and continuing record of failure, waste, and poor management that has plaqued the program since 1997.
SBInet (2006) is the latest iteration of the virtual fence, succeeding the America Shield (2004), which succeeded the Integrated Surveillance Intelligenc System (1998).
In the name of securing the southwestern border, Congress and the U.S. public have been willing to issue blank checks to border security and defense contractors that have repeatedly promised they can install an integrated electronic surveillance system without ever having delivered. Officially, SBInet will cost $6.7 billion but both the GAO and the DHS inspector general have viewed this figure with extreme skepticism – saying that it cost three times that amount or more.
At a congressional hearing this week on SBInet, the GAO’s chief of homeland security issues Richard Stana said that there was no way to estimate how much SBInet would cost because neither the Border Patrol nor SBInet contractor Boeing knows yet – despite having run through $620 million since September 2006.
It’s not as if this is the first time that those promising a technical fix to border control have wasted taxpayer money and filled their own pockets.
To understand the full extent of the virtual fence scandal it’s helpful to review the sordid history of the ISIS project, which, like SBInet, promised that it would secure the border and function as a “force multiplier” for the Border Patrol.
One of the main proponents of ISIS was U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tx), who was the Border Patrol sector chief in El Paso before running for Congress in 1997.
Reyes and High-Tech Border Security
Questions about Reyes’ campaign financing and possibly related contract have surrounded the congressman’s persistent and longtime support for high-tech electronic surveillance along the border, involving two no-bid contracts. Since coming to Washington in January 1997 Reyes has been a key advocate of constructing a “virtual fence” along the southwestern border, despite the all-too-real multibillion dollar price tag and absence of hard data that the billions result in improved border security.
Reyes and family have been involved in promoting virtual fencing since Border Patrol contractors started laying out the first components of the electronic surveillance system in the late 1990s.
But it wasn’t until the Inspector General (OIG) of the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA) in December 2004 released an audit of the border electronic surveillance project, then-called the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS), that the some of the details of the electronic surveillance project were publicly revealed.
The audit focused on the Border Patrol’s relationship with the two ISIS contractors, starting with the Alaska native-based Chugach Development Corp. (headquartered in Virginia) and continuing with its successor International Microwave Corp. Rebecca Reyes, daughter of Rep. Reyes, directed the ISIS project for the two contractors.
According to GSA, the audit review of ISIS encountered serious management issues that undermined the value of the more than $200 million that had been spent on the surveillance project. The GAO inspector general found, among other things, that ISIS suffered from: “lack of competition in the awarding” of the contract, “inappropriate contract for construction services,” “inadequate contract administration and project management,” “providing equipment without contract approval,” and “ineffective management controls.”
The GSA inspector general’s audit concluded that the government had paid for "shoddy work" or "for work that was incomplete or never delivered." Official inattention to the contracted project "placed taxpayers' dollars and . . . national security at risk."
A follow-up investigative report by the Washington Post (April 11, 2005) detailed the chronology of ISIS deployment in which Rep. Reyes and his daughter, Rebecca, played major roles.
The Post recounted how Walter Drabik of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had launched the ISIS project in 1996 shortly after former Border Patrol Chief Reyes arrived in Washington. Reyes came to Congress as a strong proponent of electronic surveillance, while opposing proposals for an extended border fence.
A $2-million contract with the Alaska-based Chugach Development Corp. was soon succeeded by a series of multimillion contracts with International Microwave Corp. From its 1999 beginning ISIS was subject to controversy, intra-agency tensions, and allegations of inside dealings.
According to the Post report:
"Over the objections of Border Patrol officials, INS official Walter Drabik chose cameras distributed by a firm called ISAP. U.S. officials and contractors said IMC International Microwave Corp.] had bought the ISAP firm without disclosing it to INS officials. This allowed IMC to buy cameras from its own subsidiary, substantially increasing profits. Undisclosed self-dealing could be illegal."
Because of escalating concerns about the failed implementation of the project and about failed Border Patrol oversight, Congress was by the end of the decade threatening to eliminate the ISIS project. According to the Washington Post article, IMC then turned to Rep. Reyes and other allies in 2000 to help rescue ISIS. “Within months, INS and GSA officials granted IMC a contract expansion worth $200 million, with no competitive bidding.” The Post described Reyes as “a former Border Patrol official and key backer of the system of 12,000 sensors and several hundred cameras installed for the Border Patrol between 1998 and last year .”
Family connections to shoddy border surveillance project
INS’ Drabik said, according to the Post’s report, that he recommended that first Chugach, then IMC, hire Rebecca Reyes as liaison to the INS. Both did so. Rebecca Reyes, 33, ultimately became IMC's vice president for contracts, and ran the ISIS program. Rebecca is one of three children of the congressman. The others are Silvestre Jr. and Monica.
As the El Paso Times (April 25, 2005) reported: "All three children of U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes worked in some capacity for defense contractors that were criticized by the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. General Services Administration for installing faulty or incomplete equipment for a border security technology system. International Microwave Corp. and L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. — through their political action committees and others — also gave Reyes about $17,000 in campaign contributions during the past five years."
In 2001 Silvestre Reyes Jr., a former investigator for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), was hired by IMC as an ISIS technician. According to the congressman, his son helped set up the Border Patrol repair center in New Mexico that employed 19 IMC employees and two Border Patrol agents. The GSA audit found that “little to no work” was done at this center. Silvestre Jr. became a L-3 employee after the company bought IMC.
Monica Reyes, according to her father, was employed by IMC to conduct training.
After International Microwave was purchased in late 2002 by L-3 Communications, a major defense, homeland security, and intelligence contractor, Rebecca Reyes became a vice-president at that corporation, which assumed control of the ISIS project. As vice president for surveillance systems, Reyes described a remote electronic surveillance deployed by L-3 as “a force multiplier.”
Commenting on the involvement of the Reyes children in the border electronic surveillance debacle, Gene Davis, a retired deputy Border Patrol chief for the Blaine sector in Washington state, told the El Paso Times: “I am very concerned when I look at Congressman Reyes and his kids. I don’t like the way it looks. And what really upsets me is the amount of money taxpayers put into a system that wasn’t working, and that put our nation’s security at risk.”
The Post also noted that David Watters, the Border Patrol officer overseeing the much-criticized ISIS repair center in New Mexico, had a daughter and a niece working at the center.
“What we have here, plain and simple, is a case of gross mismanagement of a multimillion dollar contract,” said Congressman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.). “This agreement has violated federal contracting rules. And it has wasted taxpayers’ dollars. Worst of all, it has seriously weakened our border security.” Rogers, then-chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Management, Integration and Oversight, conducted a hearing on June 16, 2005 to determine why the L-3 subsidiary failed to execute the border security project.
L-3’s then-CEO Frank Lanza said that the Rebecca Reyes was cleared of any wrongdoing by the GSA investigation.
Reyes made her way to a vice-presidency at L-3 Communications from Chugach, where she worked as a technical writer, and then to IMC (which acquired a part of Chugach), where she directed the ISIS project, and then to L-3 in late 20002, when L-3 acquired IMC. At L-3 Reyes first served as vice president of surveillance systems.
Reyes later became director of policy, procedures and administration at L-3 subsidiary MPRI (Military Professional Resource Inc.), according to a report on intelligence outsourcing by CorpWatch and Amnesty International. Essentially, MPRI is an employment service for mercenaries, and has, for example, a major Army contract to supply interrogators, translators, and private intelligence agents for Iraq operations. MPRI says it maintains a “database of select former military (or military related), DOD civilians, Homeland Security and law enforcement professionals who would like to be considered for MPRI requirements.”
When asked as part of the research for this article about his children’s work for government contractors, Reyes’ aide Vince Perez said that "None of the Congressman's children work or have ever worked for companies that receive funding from a project requested by the Congressman. Nor do any of the Congressman’s children work for entities that have contributed to his campaign."
The current places of employment of Monica Reyes and Silvestre Reyes Jr. could not be determined. L-3 Communications is a longtime source of contributions to the Reyes campaign committee.
L-3 Communications denied that its newly acquired subsidiary IMC overcharged or failed to install the surveillance technology for which the government had paid. However, Joe Samprano, chief of the company’s subsidiary Government Services Incorporated, said that ISIS had grown too quickly for IMC to effectively manage – a problem that was rectified by the takeover of the project by the much larger L-3 Communications team in November 2002. Government Services Incorporated is the parent of MPRI, which it bought in 2000, and outsources interrogators and intelligence agents throughout the world but primarily in the Middle East.
Rep. Reyes and IMC’s Acri
Anthony Acri, IMC’s president, defended his firm’s work, saying the system was well-built and was a good investment for taxpayers. Acri said the halt in work on the system "is very dangerous for our country."
The OIG report prodded L-3 Communications to repair the faulty work of International Microwave, and L-3 fired Acri.
In addition to the charges of nepotism that surrounded the ISIS project, IMC and Reyes were linked by campaign contributions from IMC’s president and his family. In 1999-2001, IMC President Anthony Acri, Ann Acri, and Anthony Acri Jr. from Bramford, Conn. (home of IMC’s corporate headquarters) gave Reyes’ campaign committee $9,500 in ten separate donations.
Responding to the charges about the surveillance project, Rep. Reyes said:
"I had no role in whatever way of anyone getting these contracts. These contracts, whether they're bid or no-bid or whatever, that's done by the different government) agencies. My job, as I see it, since I used systems like this and since I know how important they are to Border Patrol agents in those situations, is to make sure we're out there funding them so that we can get these systems installed throughout the border.”
A continuing record of failure and poor oversight
A year after the GSA issued its audit review DHS’ own Office of Inspector General (OIG)issued its own scathing report on border electronic surveillance operations. The DHS concluded that Border Patrol oversight of the project’s contracting was “ineffective.” Rather than checking invoices from contractors, the Border Patrol simply approved them and certified them after the contractors had been paid.
As to the effectiveness of ISIS remote electronic surveillance, the OIG stated:
“We determined that more than 90 percent of the responses to sensor alerts resulted in ‘false alarms’ - something other than illegal alien activity, such as local traffic, outbound traffic, a train, or animals. On the southwest border, only two percent of sensor alerts resulted in apprehensions; on the northern border, less than one percent of sensor alerts resulted in apprehensions. “Lack of defined, stabilized, validated requirements increases likelihood of program changes, interoperability problems, equitable adjustments, and cost overruns. A broadly defined Statement of Objectives approach coupled with undefined requirements leaves programs vulnerable to failure and cost overruns."
The Border Patrol claims that electronic surveillance is a “force multiplier,” meaning that the technological barrier increases the efficiency and impact of individual agents. But the DHS report of December 2005 found the Border Patrol was “unable to quantify force-multiplication benefits” and what is more found that one of the many flaws of ISIS was that the project was badly undermanned, especially in monitoring the output of the surveillance system.
A new GAO report this week – the fourth in a series of blistering critiques of SBInet – show that the virtual fence appears to be based on a badly mistaken and very expensive belief in technical fixes for a complicated social and international issue.