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Monday, January 31, 2011

Systemic Flaws in High-Tech Border Security


(Second of two parts on virtual fence, new and proposed.) 

Before rushing ahead with another high-tech fix for our so-called “border security,” the Obama administration should take a hard look at the conceptual and strategic failures of the SBInet. 

It wasn’t just technical glitches and management shortcomings that  doomed SBInet.

A series of blistering reports from DHS’ own inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, as well as a barrage of criticism from the various congressional committees that oversee DHS, warned that SBInet was a bust. The reports noted that Border Patrol never offered any clear definition of the project, a credible price estimate or strategic plan. (See: Fallacies of High-Tech Fixes for Border Security.) The “system of systems” was plagued by cost overruns, technical glitches, and repeated schedule delays.

Typical of the abstract language describing the SBInet concept, DHS said it represented “a systematic approach to deploy technological tools in stages, allowing each stage to build on the success of earlier stages.” And the objective is “to provide a clear common operating picture (COP) of the border environment within a command center environment, which will provide commonality within DHS components and interoperability with stakeholders outside DHS.”

In the end, DHS concluded that “the original concept for SBInet does not meet current standards for viability and cost-effectiveness” and that the “SBInet system is not the right system for all areas of the border and it is not the most cost-effective approach to secure the border.”

According to DHS, the “independent, quantitative, science-based assessment of the SBInet program” that it commissioned “demonstrated that SBInet is not the most efficient, effective and economical way to meet our nation's border security needs.” 


No doubt. As any observer knew, SBInet was shot through with flaws – the least of which were technological – from its start in November 2005.

The Napolitano-mandated assessment, according to DHS, concluded that SBInet did not “have the capability to provide a one size fits all integrated technological solution to border security.”  DHS reported that SBInet research and development “generated some advancements in technology,” but, rather than seeking new technological platforms, DHS will in the immediate future “utilize existing, proven technology solutions tailored to the distinct terrain and population density of each border region.”

The scandal of insider contracts, scant oversight, and technological failure in electronic surveillance on the border predates SBInet.  Between 1997 and 2006, the Department of Justice (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 OIG issued blistering reports about ISIS and America’s Shield, prefiguring more recent governmental critiques of SBInet.

New High-Tech Solution Moves Forward Without Sufficient Consideration

DHS says that the new search for a high-tech solution for border security “recognizes that we must effectively deploy a wide range of proven technology along the Southwest border to best meet our nation’s pressing border technology needs and complement this administration’s unprecedented investment in manpower, infrastructure and resources to secure the Southwest border.”

It should be remembered that, as DHS presses forward with its new border technology plan, SBInet was also initially scheduled to use only proven, off-the-shelf technology. Boeing did attempt to cobble together different systems into one system, but little worked as planned.

Then, when it tried to create a unique technology platform, Boeing had little success. The system couldn’t distinguish between a person and a bush swaying in the wind. It didn’t get close to establishing a common operating picture for the Border Patrol.

As it moves quickly toward a new high-tech plan, DHS hasn’t acknowledged that its “system of systems” had underlying systemic flaws – namely, the failure of DHS to focus on real security threats, the outsourcing of border security projects (including its oversight and management) to private contractors, and the failure of DHS to submit the hugely expensive project (projected $8 billion) to a cost-benefit assessment. Such an assessment would attempt to measure the margin of increased security resulting from new border security programs against their cost. 

If DHS doesn’t change its ways (and it has said or done little to indicate any change in operations) then the newly initiated high-tech plan for border security will surely end like its predecessors – monuments to fallacies of high-tech solutions to challenges of managing our border with Mexico.

For more information see:
CIP International Policy Report: Fallacies of High-Tech Fixes for Border Security, April 2010

Catching "Our Adversaries" with New Virtual Fence

(First of two parts on virtual fence, old and newly proposed.) 

The virtual fence is dead. Long live the virtual fence!

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Jan. 14, 2011 that DHS was cutting of funding for Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet). I DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff in November 2005 introduced the new remote surveillance system – what he called a “virtual fence” that would include not only a system of electronic detection but also a communications system that would enable a quick response to illegal border crossings.

Homeland Security says has spent about a billion dollars on SBInet – with only the detritus of a dysfunctional Boeing surveillance project southwest of Tucson to show for all that spending. Virtual fence, indeed.

The DHS called SBInet a “system of systems.” But it turned out to be a major technological and bureaucratic bust – which system’s critics, including congressional committees and governmental monitoring agencies, had been saying for the past three years.

DHS, however, has not given up on finding a high-tech fix for border security. Several days after shuttering the dysfunctional SBInet, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the DHS agency that includes the Border Patrol, took the first step toward creating a SBInet II. The new technology plan is based on an “Analysis of Alternatives” ordered last year by Napolitano.

CBP issued a Request for Information (RFI) on Jan. 18, 2011 for vendors interested in participating in a new high-tech plan for border security.  The RFI asks vendors for information about existing surveillance and communications technology that could be part of a system of “integrated fixed towers” along the border.  

Towers with cameras and communications devices were the main feature of the failed SBInet pilot projects in southern Arizona. 

But Boeing proved utterly unable to create a virtual fence – a technological platform for border security that would detect illegal entries, communicate actionable information back to Border Patrol “command center,” and then quickly relay information about illegal border crossers to Border Patrol agents in the field.

In its goal of providing “automated, persistent wide area surveillance for the detection, tracking, identification, and classification of illegal entries,” the new technological plan for border security differs little from its failed predecessor.  

CBP is, however, attempting to distinguish the new plan from SBInet and the remote electronic surveillance projects that preceded it by stating that the proposed system will be adaptable to varying conditions along the nearly 2,000-mile border and that it will be based not on new technology developed for the project but on “off-the-shelf” technology from the private and public sectors.

Another important difference is that the CBP is seeking information as the first step rather than simply turning over the project to a contractor based on solely on company promises and assurances.

Containing “Our Adversaries”

But there are worrying signs that CBP’s new initiative will continue its unfortunate history of seeking high-tech fixes for a problem that it hasn’t even defined.  The DHS and CBP have committed to ensuring border security but offer no definition of the term or a strategy on how to achieve a secure border. As a result, all illegal crossborder entries are regarded as security breaches and threats to the homeland.

In this security paradigm, immigrants seeking work and packages of smuggled marijuana are security threats just as are terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.

This unfocused vision of border security leads to unfocused, ineffective, and wasteful projects.

DHS says the new technology plan will provide “flexible capabilities that will enable the Border Patrol to move and adapt to the threat.” The undifferentiated threat encompasses all illegal border crossings. So enraptured with -- and blinded by -- the post-9/11 security/military framework for border control that DHS labels illegal border crossers as “adversaries.”

Describing the new plan in its “Report on the Assessment of the SBNnet Program,” DHS attempts to assure us that its proposed high-tech border security plan won’t repeat the mistakes of past programs that merely shifted the flows of immigrants and illegal drugs to new corridors: The Department recognizes that, as we tighten the security of one area, our adversaries will attempt to find new routes in other areas.”

It’s no wonder that our nation’s institutions of homeland security and border security – as well as the concepts shaping their operations – have come under such harsh criticism.

Border security hawks insist that all illegal intrusions threaten our security and sovereignty. But DHS and CBP should have a more strategic view of border control – one where immigrants and smuggled marijuana wouldn’t be regarded as “adversaries.”

CBP does say – as it state previously with its Secure Border Initiative -- that its new system will “identify and classify these entries to determine the level of threat involved.”  That would certainly be an amazing high-tech achievement – identifying terrorists and terrorism weapons through remote electronic surveillance – but an unlikely one.

If Congress believes that, then DHS may also have a bridge it could sell it the credulous senators and representative who allocated billions of dollars for one border security initiative after another without demanding any evidence that these would indeed improve our security. 

For more information see:

CIP International Policy Report: Fallacies of High-Tech Fixes for Border Security, April 2010

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sealing the Border Against Marijuana


Customs and Border Protection says it is "securing the border" against "dangerous people and drugs." And it has the stats to prove it. 


If you don’t mind logistical inconsistencies, the Department of Homeland Security has the proof that CBP (the DHS agency that includes the Border Patrol) stands on the frontlines of homeland security -- keeping us safe against immigrants and marijuana. 

In a new report outlining its plans for more billion-dollar, high-tech projects to secure the border, DHS boasts: “Recent efforts have generated significant improvements in border security, as measured by a decline in apprehensions and an increase in drug seizures.”

In its Report on the Assessment of the Secure Border Initiative-Network (SBInet) Program, DHS includes a chart (above) that is intended to document its border-security achievements. But there is no explanation how its purported success in securing the border can be measured simultaneously in increasing numbers (drug seizures) and decreasing numbers (illegal border crossers apprehended). 

When defending its annual budget increases, DHS pointed to the rising number of illegal immigrants in the first half of the decade to explain the urgent need for more agents, more walls, and more high-tech fixes. As the number of apprehended immigrants has started to decline, DHS underscored the purported effectiveness of its border security spending and the resulting “deterrence.”  

Depending on the topic of the press briefing or congressional hearing, DHS variously attributes the new numbers of arrests and seizures to the border fence, increased Border Patrol agents, remote surveillance, and higher overall agency budgets.

But DHS' arguments about increased deterrence from the expanded deployment of Border Patrol agents (doubled since 2003) for some unexplained reason don't apply to the control of illegal drug flows across the southwestern border. With drugs, more border security means more seizures not fewer. 

DHS doesn’t attempt to explain why deterrence may work with illegal immigrants but not with illegal drugs. As has been the practice during the four decades of the war on drugs, increased seizures, arrests, and eradications are the benchmarks used to determine success – not the measure of drugs flowing into the United States or consumed here.

In this case, DHS argues the steady rise in the tons of marijuana seized along the border makes the homeland is safer , while pointing out that this upward trend in marijuana seizures roughly parallels the steady rise in the number of Border Patrol agents.

Whether it’s the thousands of immigrants apprehended or the tons of marijuana seized, the Border Patrol always seems to have the numbers to support the dual contention that it is doing a great job and that a budget increase is critical. 

When immigrant apprehensions are up, the Border Patrol and ICE say it is the result of their diligence. When the number of immigrants they capture is down, they say it is because of the deterrent effect of their increased enforcement.

It’s what Peter Andreas and Kelly Greenhill call the “numbers game” in their book Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts. The standard quantitative indicators – such as numbers of arrests, deportations, seizures, confiscations, and so on – are built into the funding mechanism, creating powerful bureaucratic incentives to sustain them,” they write.

The numbers game played by the DHS and its border-control and immigration-enforcement agencies has been wildly successful in supporting ever higher budgets. Yet, never does DHS bring other, less convenient numbers into the game picture, especially when it is making a case for increased agency budgets.


Missing Intelligence


Missing in the DHS chart of seizures are, among other things, numbers from the Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center.

The center’s National Drug Intelligence Assessment 2010 reported that marijuana in the United States is “widely available, in part as a result of rising production in Mexico. The amount of marijuana produced in Mexico has increased an estimated 59 percent overall since 2003.”

Increased border security by DHS, then, has had little impact on the availability of marijuana in the U.S. market. According to this Justice Department, “Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug, with 25.8 million individuals 12 years of age and older (10.3%) reporting past year use.”

That’s about the same percentage of U.S. residents who have used marijuana every year this past decade, even as population is rising. In their book, Andreas and Greenhill note that the numbers used to assess cross-border activities “often have more to do with political imperatives and bureaucratic incentives than actual deterrence.”

What’s all too clear is that DHS, despite its professed commitment to protect against “dangerous people and goods,” is playing the same old numbers game, while failing to address the policy origins of the border control, immigration enforcement, and drug control crises – namely our failure to reform immigration policy and to end the drug wars home and abroad.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Federal Stimulus Funding for Border Security and Drug War in Arizona


Arizona is in tatters. Politically, economically, and socially the state is reeling.

The decision by Gov. Jan Brewer to sign the anti-immigrant Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB 1070) last April put the ills of Arizona on national display, exposing the state’s deep social and political divides. 

The attempted assassination of Cong. Gabrielle Giffords further damaged the state’s already badly frayed reputation.

Described by Pima County Sheriff as “a mecca for prejudice and bigotry” following the Tucson massacre, Arizona also faces one of the nation’s most severe fiscal crises – even worse than that of California, according to a new study by the Brookings Institution.

Facing a budget deficit of more than $2 billion, Gov. Brewer has, with the strong backing of the Republican-dominated legislature, proposed a new budget that severely slashes government spending, especially for education and medical services. Spending for parks will be zeroed out in the new budget.

The fiscal crisis has been building since 2008 when housing prices plummeted, the sub-prime credit crisis hit, and the nation’s Great Recession struck. Over the past couple of years, the magnitude and severity of the state government’s fiscal woes were disguised by the influx into the state of more than $4 billion in special federal funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). But as this stimulus/stabilization funding comes to an end, Arizona’s fiscal plight is raising increasing concerns about the state’s stability.

Anxiety about Arizona’s future arises in large part from doubts about the capacity of the state’s political leaders to identify the fundamental problems facing the state and chart an appropriate course forward.

Stabilization vs. Security

Last year, Gov. Brewer began closing state parks and highway rest stops last year and slashing social services to cover shortfalls in the 2010-2011 budgets. “Closed for stabilization” notices are pasted on the doors of public buildings. Rows of orange barrels block entrance to now-shuttered rest areas along the interstate highways.

At the same time, though, the governor, encouraged by the state’s radical Republican leadership, was channeling federal stabilization funds into new state border-security initiatives.

A month before signing Arizona’s notorious papers-please anti-immigrant law, Gov. Jan Brewer burnished her border-security credentials by dipping into the state’s ARRA funds to ply border law enforcement agencies -- already awash in Homeland Security funding through DHS’s Operation Stonegarden -- with another $10 million.

“A government’s principle [sic] responsibility to its citizens is to provide safety and security. However, the federal government has failed miserably in its obligation and moral responsibility to its citizens regarding border security,” declared Governor Brewer on April 22 when announcing state’s the launch of the state’s Border Security Enhancement Program.

Brewer took a page out of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s playbook by asserting that the federal government’s failure to protect Arizona against illegal immigrants, border crime, and drugs obligated the state to secure the Arizona border with Mexico – all the while downplaying that the state’s border security program is underwritten by stimulus funds intended for the state’s fiscal stabilization. Like Perry, Brewer planned to ride the anti-immigrant backlash and border-security bandwagon to victory in November 2010 gubernatorial contest. 

Brewer claimed she was responding to “murder, terror, and mayhem” as a result of the federal government’s failure to secure the border. The stimulus funding, according to the program’s guidelines, must be used by border law enforcement to “combat criminal activity associated with or directly stemming from the international border…specifically: illegal drug trafficking, human smuggling, illegal immigration.” But FBI crime statistics told another story: steadily declining crime rates along the border and throughout Arizona.

Brewer tapped her office’s newly created State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, established with ARRA funding from the U.S. Department of Education, to create her new border security program.

The objective of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund is to “help stabilize state and local government budgets in order to minimize and avoid reductions in education and other public services.” Primarily intended to keep states from cutting their education budgets, the stabilization fund does allow discretionary funding for “Other Government Services.” Brewer has used this opening to plug a hole in the state’s prison budget in addition to creating the politically motivated Border Security Enhancement Program.

Get-tough sentencing laws and the practice of imprisoning illegal drug users (more than half of the state’s prison population) have created a higher-than-average incarceration rate in Arizona, contributing substantially to the Arizona’s severe budget crisis. Unable to pay the wages of the some 1,300 state corrections officers, Brewer dipped into the fiscal stabilization funds for $50 million to cover the prison payroll shortfall last year – which was her first use of “Other Government Services” portion of the ARRA stabilization program.

Next: Border Security Politics and Federal Funding in Cochise County.

This series was made possible by a grant from The Nation Institute.