Thursday, February 18, 2010

Virtual Fence Broken, Beyond Repair

In 2006 DHS posted a request for proposals for SBInet, but DHS Secretary Chertoff had only the vaguest conception of what type of electronic surveillance project DHS was seeking. So instead of issuing a project “statement of objectives” with specific specifications, DHS asked the military contracting community to create their own vision for the project.

Rather than a typical “specifications-based” contract in which contractor is told exactly what is wanted and want metrics will be used to judge the product, DHS let out a “performance-based” contract for projected $2 billion over three years. Once the contractor was able to put a prototype in place, it would then be awarded an extended contract – estimated to be under $8 billion for the southwestern border and more than $30 billion for both southern and northern borders. But these estimates were just wild guesses – with absolutely no grounding in facts or expense budgets.

So began what President Bush in May 2007 asserted what was certain to “the most technologically advanced border security initiative in American history.”

DHS considered proposals from major military contractors, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. Boeing, with its proposal for a network of 1,800 towers, was awarded a three-year,” Indefinite-Delivery, Indefinite-Quantity” contract.  

DHS, in other words, left it completely up to Boeing to create the secure border net.  DHS’ inspector general critically described the contract as “leaving the work tasks and deliverables largely undefined until the government negotiates a specific delivery task order.” Basically, DHS told Boeing that it wanted a technological fix for border security and allowed Boeing to determine what the system would look like and what technology would be used.

A month after DHS announced the launch of SBInet, Boeing announced in May 20096 that it had been selected as the prime contractor. Jim Albaugh, president and CEO of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, said, "SBInet is an initiative of national significance addressing a global problem," without explaining just how it would work.

According to Boeing, the “Boeing-led SBInet team” includes L-3 Communications, Lucent, DRS Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group, Elbit Systems, Perot Systems, and Unisys.

Several months later DHS publicly announced the contract award to Boeing at a Sept. 26 news conference where Chertoff tried to explain to inquiring reporters what exactly SBInet was gong to be:

“What we are looking to build is a virtual fence, a 21st century virtual fence -- to be sure, one that does involve old-fashioned fencing and tactical infrastructure, but also one that involves proven tools that have been used not only in this country but around the world to help us identify intrusions, characterize the intrusions across the border, and allow the Border Patrol authorities to interdict and apprehend those who are coming across the border illegally as effectively as possible.
 “The key to this is integration, and this is what we have brought to the table at SBI Net that did not exist before. Prior efforts to put technology on the border have been focused on individual tools, but have not been focused on integrating all of the tools together as part of a comprehensive program, and one that is being driven by the requirements of the operators themselves. So the strategy we've built today, which is one that will eventually be rolled out is one that has been operator-driven, has focused on proven technologies, and has required as a critical element full integration of all of the tools so the operators get the full benefit.”

Littered through DHS descriptions and guidelines for most of its programs – especially border control and immigration enforcement -- are assurances that the programs are “risk-based,” meaning that they primarily target illegal goods and individuals that present the highest risk to homeland security. In practice, however, risk-based programming is trumped by such language as “operation control” and “comprehensive enforcement” that justifies deployments of personnel and technology have no risk-based foundation.

How would SBInet conform to DHS’s risk-based standards?

Chertoff assured reporters at the September 2006 press conference that SBInet would be able to distinguish among border crossers caught in this integrated electronic surveillance system:

“We want to characterize and identify the intrusion. We don't want to send the Border Patrol chasing coyotes, meaning four-legged coyotes that are coming across the border. We want them chasing people who are coming across the border. So the technology has to allow us to characterize in an efficient fashion and cull out those intrusions that we don't care about.”

“SBInet will integrate the latest technology and infrastructure to interdict illegal immigration and stop threats attempting to cross borders,” explained Chertoff on another occasion later in 2006. “This strategic partnership allows the department to exploit private-sector ingenuity and expertise to quickly secure our nation’s borders.”

Chertoff’s description of SBInet in September 2006 as a virtual fence underscored that SBInet was just a hope and a dream --- border-security based on little more than a conviction that technology could provide the type of comprehensive surveillance and security that agents and actual fences couldn’t deliver, namely “operational control” over the border. Soon thereafter, DHS dropped the description of the surveillance project as a virtual fence and began describing it as a “deployment of towers with a suite of integrated day and night cameras, radars, unattended ground sensors, and a communications relay.”

Today the Border Patrol dismisses the term virtual fence as a media concoction that inaccurately describes the surveillance project that does not focused on a line but rather over a large field of border territory extending miles away from the border.

SBInet Follows History of High-Tech Surveillance Failures

The scandal of insider contracts, scant oversight, and technological failure in electronic surveillance on the border predates SBInet.  

Between 1997 and 2006 DOJ and DHS spent $439 million on two electronic surveillance projects that were largely abandoned because of system failures. These were the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS) and its successor, America’s Shield Initiative.

The General Services Administration and DHS’s Office of Inspector General issued blistering reports about ISIS and America’s Shield, prefiguring more recent governmental critiques of SBInet. The OIG concluded:

* “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.”

Like SBInet, the Border Patrol’s earlier electronic surveillance projects claimed that they would be 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.

SBInet Under Government Surveillance

Two months after the public announcement of the Boeing contract, DHS Inspector General Richard L. Skinner on Nov. 16, 2006 told the oversight committee of the House Committee on Homeland Security that Customs and Border Protection was grossly unprepared to launch the new surveillance project. Among his observations:

  • “The department does not have the capacity needed to effectively plan, oversee, and execute the SBInet program; administer its contracts; and control costs and schedule.
  • “The department’s acquisition management capacity lacks the appropriate work force, business processes, and management controls for planning and executing a new start major acquisition program such as SBInet.
  • By not setting measurable performance goals and thresholds, the government was at increased risk that offerors would rely on unproven technologies and high-risk technical solutions that would delay implementation or be unaffordable.
  • “While contractors are appropriate for support services, only federal employees should perform inherently governmental functions. The emerging organizational structure identified 65% of the 252 positions as contractors and only 27 of the 69 filled positions were government employees. At this decision-intensive stage of the program, when courses of action are being set, this indicates the extent of reliance on service contractors will be excessive for the management control environment.
  • The department’s acquisition management capacity lacked the appropriate work force, business processes, and management controls for planning and executing a new start major acquisition program such as SBInet.
  • To mitigate this risk, the solicitation asked for solutions that used commercial-off-the-shelf and government-off-the-shelf solutions, even as the department publicly encouraged use of high-risk, developmental items, such as unmanned aerial vehicles.
  • Changing the program’s direction will likely require contract changes and equitable adjustments, rework of the contractor’s planning, management, and systems engineering efforts, and add cost and delay.” (Which is exactly what happened after Boeing’s pilot deployment in Ajo, Arizona in 2008 proved an utter failure.)

On Feb. 8, 2007 Rep. Henry Waxman (D- Cal.) and the majority members of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform issued a statement of concern about the lack of DHS control over SBInet, underscoring a department-wide crisis in unmonitored outsourcing.  The statement observed:

* “It appears that private contractors hired by the Department played leading roles in contract planning and contract award, and will now constitute the majority of the staff engaged in contract management and oversight.

* “Thirteen individuals participated in the development of the acquisition plan for SBInet. Of these 13 individuals, eight were identified as contractors.”

* “The SBInet contract program is now managed by a staff dominated by

An April 2009 GAO report found that SBInet management had met only three of dozens of conditions it had set forth in a 2008 report, which reported: "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.”

SBInet Out of Control

Technical glitches have plagued the project from the beginning. But, as congressional review committees and a series of scathing reports from the Government Accountability Office and the OIG have repeatedly found, the fundamental problem with SBInet has been the lack of DHS oversight and direction. Basically, in the post-Sept. 11 enthusiasm for border security, DHS has handed over its authority, oversight, and budget to Boeing for this dream of a high-tech fix project.

The Border Patrol never presented detailed strategic plan for SBInet, never explained how it would interact with other border control tactics or technology, and yielded control over the project to Boeing with only formal CBP oversight.

Even so DHS continued to back Boeing, SBI director Mark Borkowski repeatedly assured the public (including in a December 2009 interview with the author) that the new iteration of SBInet would work because of the extensive testing by the company and the Border Patrol at its Playas, NM facility.  After the abysmal failure of a pilot project in the same area in the same area two years ago, the new improved version offered suffers from cameras that won’t function in the desert cold and software bugs that repeatedly shut down communications.

What’s more, the camera images from Boeing’s project are often so blurry that operators at Border Patrol stations can’t distinguish a human from a bush, let alone from wandering coyote – or a terrorist or an arms or dangerous narcotics smuggler.

So much for the “proven technologies” and “private-sector ingenuity” that Secretary Chertoff said that Boeing was going to integrate into this “system of systems.”

On Jan. 8 Secretary Janet Napolitano said that the continuing delays in the installation of SBInet were unacceptable, noting too that the government needed more efficient and economical options. "Americans need border security now -- not 10 years down the road," Napolitano said.

Napolitano’s call for an assessment is long overdue. But her decision to allow Boeing to proceed with its planned deployments of SBInet and to request $50 million in recovery act funds for the Boeing project underscores the administration’s failure to control the outsourcing that pervades DHS and failure to seriously reconsider its unfocused border security initiatives.

The decision to assess the project and slow down the funding stream appears not to have been the result of escalating criticism of the project but rather from the administration’s need to demonstrate that it is chipping away at its mounting budget deficit. Although cut back, SBI is still receiving more than a half-billion dollars annually.

Yet SBInet will continue, at least until Boeing finished its two planned installations south of Tucson – deployments that were originally scheduled to be in place by June 2007. In addition to appropriations for SBInet in the 2009 Bush budget and the 2010 Obama budget, SBInet counted on a special allocation from the Recovery Act stimulus package. According to the SBInet proposal for stimulus funding, DHS received a supplemental infusion of $100 million for expedited development and deployment of border security technology on the Southwest border”, including $50 million specifically for SBInet.

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 stimulus – job-creating – funds for SBInet, CBP argued that it is fiscally responsible, stating: “CBP takes its stewardship of taxpayer dollars seriously.”

This came despite a continuing flurry of OIG, GAO, and congressional oversight reports that concluded that SBInet was a financial and technological disaster and many of its flaws and wasteful expenditures were the result of the Border Patrol’s attempt to ramrod the project through with no plan, no strategy, and no oversight.

The DHS 2011 budget includes a $574 million request for SBI – reduction of $158 million from 2010. According to DHS this funding level maintains CBP’s investment in priority border technology, including the construction, deployment and evaluation of Block 1 of the SBInet initiative to additional border patrol sectors in Arizona.”

In addition the 2011 budget request expands the deployment and integration of technology along the northern border, including for SBInet, mobile surveillance systems, mobile sensor capabilities, and communications systems.

Not Just About Tech Glitches

The SBInet fiasco is not just a matter of technological glitches. Given the Border Patrol’s practice – starting in 1997 with ISIS – to hand over its electronic surveillance projects to contractors with little accompany direction or oversight, the pattern of contractor abuse and failure is predictable. Indeed, year after year of the government’s own reviews of these projects have clearly detailed their systemic flaws.

But these flaws extend beyond the challenges of high-tech border security. They highlight departmental over-reliance on contractors – not only to carry out departmental functions but also, alarmingly, to oversee properly the management and outsourcing of these technological wish-fulfillment projects.

Closely related to and contributing to this outsourcing crisis at DHS is that the department has received increasingly large infusions of budget appropriations for border security – with no congressional or executive branch requirements that DHS demonstrate its success in stopping truly dangerous people and goods.

Photo/Arizona Historical Society: Border Patrol when boots were really on the ground. Not the omnipresent green BP trucks, virtual fences, ugly really fences, and drones. 

Next: Predator Drones Seek to Target and Remove Immigrants and Marijuana 

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