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Friday, September 18, 2009

The Virtual Fence's History of Incompetence

(An excerpt from the third part in the Reyes the Rainmaker series.) Although a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tx.)is a major force in Congress for more border security. But unlike many border security advocates, Reyes opposed building border fences along open, nonurban stretches of the border. He has won praise from immigrant rights advocates for both his support for immigration reform and his opposition to the border wall part of DHS’ Secure Border Initiative.
But Reyes has been a longtime supporter of electronic surveillance projects, despite their high cost, history of failed government oversight, and persistent technical failures. At a July 20, 2006 homeland security hearing, Reyes said:
“That is why I have consistently lobbied my colleagues for greater resources for border security, including additional Border Patrol agents, equipment, and technology; more immigration inspectors and judges; and thousands of new detention beds.”
Declaring his opposition to the then-proposed 700-mile border fence, Reyes argued instead for a virtual fence:
“In these more remote areas our limited border security resources would be much better spent on additional personnel, equipment, and technology such as sensors to create what is often referred to as a ‘virtual fence.’ A virtual fence could also be implemented more quickly and therefore could help us gain operational control of our borders sooner.”
The July 20, 2006 statement by Rep. Reyes is prefaced on the Reyes blog with this assertion of his strong border security credentials: “As usual, the Congressman grapped [sic] everybody's attention with his rock-solid, common sense border vision and his sweeping command of policy and facts.”
The virtual fence has been part a favored project of the Border Patrol and homeland security contractors since 1997. But its 12-year history gives little assurance that it is a rock-solid, common sense approach to border control.
A series of OIG reports continuing into 2009 have offered blistering criticisms of the succession of electronic surveillance projects undertaken by the Border Patrol. Yet the plans for the virtual fence have not only continued but have continually expanded in ambition scope – with scant evident of impact.
After having spent $239 million in the ISIS project, the Border Patrol in 2004 launched a new electronic surveillance project called America’s Shield, which received strong congressional and Bush administration support. By 2006 another $200 million had been spent on federal contractors with homeland security firms – still without any documented impact.
In December 2005 SBInet became the latest iteration of the electronic border surveillance project. In fiscal year 2007 alone, prior to any deployment of the system, the virtual fence project cost the U.S. taxpayer $219 million in contracts with Boeing. SBInet subcontractors include many leading homeland security firms, including L-3 Communications, Unisys, DRS Technologies, Lucent Technologies, and USIS.
DHS estimates that SBInet will cost $6.7 billion to fully deploy SBInet, but DHS’ own inspector general said that the final cost may triple the current estimates.
Because of the repeated Border Patrol 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.”
A June 2009 report on SBInet from DHS’ inspector general concluded that the Border Patrol lacked sufficient control over the project – whose short-term costs are estimated to exceed $8 billion. "With continued heavy reliance on contractor support services, CBP risks losing control of program decisions while remaining accountable for mission results," DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner wrote in the latest OIG report slamming the virtual fence.

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