Saturday, February 27, 2010

Homeland Security's Mindless Drone Strategy

(The final article in a series on the turn to SBInet and UAVs for border security.)

Customs and Border Enforcement, the Homeland Security agency that includes the Border Patrol, claims that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are a “force multiplier.”  

CBP has made the same assertion about ground-based remote surveillance systems, starting in the late 1990s with ISIS, continuing through the America’s Shield Initiative, and most recently with SBInet. has not, however, been able to support this claim.

General Atomics’ founder and CEO Thomas Cassidy makes the same force-multiplier boast. “The partnership between General Atomics and DHS/CBP has served as a force multiplier to the existing southwest border domain awareness capability, providing a dramatic increase in the ability of CBP to monitor our borders,” stated Cassidy in a press release announcing the second DHS Predator UAV contract.

A December 2005 report by DHS’ Office of Inspector General cast doubt on the Border Patrol’s force-multiplier argument for UAVs. Based on the experience with the Hermes and Hunter UAVs, OIG found that operating one UAV requires a crew of 20 support personnel, not counting the number of Border Patrol agents involved in tracking down UAV-supplied surveillance videotape in the field.

OIG also found that the cost of operating a UAV is “more than double the cost of manned aircraft.” Furthermore, the use of UAVs “has resulted in fewer seizures.”

The same December 2005 OIG report on remote surveillance also noted: “During interviews with Border Patrol officials at headquarters and in the sector offices, we were told that remote surveillance technology was a force multiplier. However, [the agency] could not provide any quantifiable data to support this claim.”

In addition, the DHS inspector general also observed that UAVs were less effective, in their limited tests, than manned aircraft in supporting the apprehension of unauthorized aliens. According to the OIG report, the Border Patrol tapped UAVs to assist in the apprehension of illegal immigrants who had already been detected by other means – creating new doubts about how the accuracy of Border Patrol statements that UAVs play a central role in immigrant arrests and marijuana seizures.

At the time OIG released this disturbing report contrasting Border Patrol claims about the value of high-tech instruments of border security with the reality of their shortcomings and high costs, the Department of Homeland Security was on the cusp of greatly expanding both its ground and air surveillance systems.

However, instead of slowing down the development of these programs or calling for a major reassessment of its high-tech surveillance programs, CBP has kept pushing ahead, buoyed by seemingly unlimited congressional and executive branch support for all its border security programs, whether cost-effective or not.

No Bottom Line for High-Tech Border Security

Concern about the costs of CBP’s push for UAVs has come from the Border Patrol Union. “Unmanned aircraft serve a very useful role in military combat situations, but are not economical or efficient in civilian law enforcement applications,” said T. J. Bonner, president of the union.

“There are a number of other technologies that are capable of providing a greater level of usefulness at a far lower cost,” Bonner said, “It appears that the contractors have once again managed to sell a bill of goods to the politicians and bureaucrats who oversee the procurement of technology designed to secure our borders.”

The advantages to the military of deploying armed UAVs – saving pilot lives in search-and-destroy missions in war zones – are manifest (albeit highly controversial). Less clear are the advantages of using unarmed UAVs for nontargeted information-gathering along the border.

CBP boasts of the speed and potential flying time of UAVs. But says nothing about their high cost, high accident rate, and fundamental dependence on industry and BP crews to interpret data and act on that data.

In contrast to a manned low-flying small planes and helicopters, whose pilot can quickly identify suspected illegal border crossers, a UAV needs a team on the ground to interpret data, thereby slowing the Border Patrol’s response.

Since 2004 CBP has been able to advance the UAV program – and SBInet-- in Congress, in DHS, and among the public largely because of its high-tech, cyber-is-great appeal. Underlying the program is an uncritical belief in possibilities of technology.

In the private sector and in most of government outside the national security apparatus, high-tech fixes like SBInet and the UAV program would likely come under more critical review because of its high cost. But when it comes to the government side of the national security complex, which taps the ever-rising budget authorizations for homeland security, there is no discernible bottom line – and therefore, apparently, no need for cost/benefit assessments.

The rush to bolster homeland security was understandable and politically popular in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Yet more than eight years later the federal government and both political parties have been unable to focus on protecting the country against real and potential threats.

Trying to stand by its promise to gain “operational control” over the land borders, DHS has turned to high-tech fixes for border security. But its turn to technology – such as virtual fences and drones – reflects DHS’ now-endemic inability to mount focused border-security operations guided by risk assessments.  

With little or no in-house technological expertise and with seemingly unlimited funds, DHS has recklessly pursued border-security strategies that aren’t tied to threat evaluations. In its pursuit of high-tech solutions, DHS hasn’t been bound by the type of financial concerns that burden nonsecurity government agencies and most of the American people.

CBP Illustration of Border Security

With no foundation grants or institutional support, Tom Barry and the TransBorder Project of Center for International Policy count on individual financial support to continue this investigative, analytical, and advocacy work.

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Friday, February 26, 2010

Border Drone Payload -- Marijuana at $70K a Pound, But Immigrants Come Cheaper

The Border Patrol points to the increasing number of arrests and amount of drugs seized as evidence of UAV benefits.

In promoting expanded UAV deployment, CBP has downplayed widely acknowledged concerns about UAVs such as their high failure rate and their limited access to U.S. airspace. Instead of assessing the appropriateness and effectiveness of its UAV program, CBP instead highlights how its aerial surveillance has contributed to stopping illegal border crossers and illegal drugs from entering the country – categorized broadly by DHS as “dangerous people and goods.”

The Predator – whose latest version is called the Reaper by the Pentagon -- has proved most valuable in search-and-destroy military missions rather than in intelligence missions (mainly because of the huge amount of nontargeted video that must be processed and reviewed). In its Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, which projects potential UAV use over the next three decades, DOD says that the primary mission of the Reaper (latest version of Predator) – officially called MQ-9 --- is “to act as a persistent hunter-killer for critical time-sensitive targets and secondarily to act as an intelligence collection asset.”

However, Homeland Security uses Predators primarily for information gathering, not actually hunting. While their cameras do pick up the targets – mainly illegal border crossers – the UAVs can’t hunt them down. The images must be transferred by satellite to the command and control centers for processing by industry operators and Border Patrol agents.

Before the first Predator crashed, after 959 hours on patrol, it contributed to 1,793 arrests of illegal border crossers and the seizure of 200 pounds of marijuana.

As the number of Predators owned by CBP has increased and the UAV program has lengthened, those numbers have increased – rising to 3,900 arrests and 13,660 pounds of marijuana by March 2007 and by early 2009 more than 4,766 arrests and 22,823 pounds of marijuana. UAV flight time rose to nearly 2,000 hours by 2007 and more than 3,000 hours by 2009, according to the Border Patrol.

Per Unit Costs

At the price of $14 million, the UAV program cost U.S. taxpayers about $7,800 to catch each illegal border crosser.

(The $14 million figure is what DHS paid for its first Predator system. This price included a remote piloting team and other General Atomics support. But it does not include the costs of making the actual arrests and seizures, which includes the crews of Border Patrol agents, their vehicles, and often manned aircraft.)

Measured in terms of the confiscated marijuana, the UAV program cost U.S. taxpayers roughly $70,000 to help the Border Patrol seize each pound of the smuggled illegal drug.

Since 2005 the costs of the UAV program have steadily increased and the benefits have steadily decreased. The second CBP contract with General Atomics for two UAVs cost $34 million.

Despite having at least three more Predators deployed in the 2006-2008 period, the number of arrests and seizures aided by UAVs did not experience a corresponding rate of increase. Arrests doubled over the next three years, while seizures of marijuana increased about 175%.

In addition to the high cost of the arrests and seizures attributed to UAV assistance, what also stands out about CBP’s UAV program are two trends: 1) the only drug seized has been marijuana, and 2) the slow rate of increase in UAV operational time despite the higher number of UAVs.

CBP says it maintains a “risk-based” standard for its drug seizure operations. But in the case of the UAV program, the drones only aided Border Patrol agents seize the least harmful (indeed many medical and psychological experts assert that marijuana can  actually be beneficial when properly used) of illegal drugs.

Which makes sense, of course, since marijuana, being bulkier and also less valuable in the market, is routinely smuggled across the border by “mules” on foot, while more care and expense is generally given to smuggling heroin and cocaine using planes and vehicles legally crossing through ports of entry. (For more information on CBP’s “risk-based” drug seizures, see Immigrant Crackdown Joins Failed Wars on Crime and Drugs.)

During the lifespan of the first Predator at CBP, the drone flew nearly 1,000 hours, but with a fleet of at least three and as many as five drones over the next three years, flight time increased by only some  2,000 hours.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles with Little Air

The slow pace of increasing UAV flight time is not unexpected.

DHS has been wishing and hoping that the mounting combined pressure from DOD, UAV industry, congressional UAV caucus, and Homeland Security itself would result in the opening of more public air space to UAV deployments at home. As it is, the DHS use of UAVs relies on military bases for their command centers, military airspaces along the border, and special arrangements between DOD, DHS, and the FAA for flights that penetrate national airspace.

DHS says it is working closely with DOD and the FAA to “remove current flight restrictions on Border Patrol Southwest border operations” and its use of national airspace. One possible solution being explored by DHS’ Science & Technology division is to install sense and avoid capabilities on UAVs that would automatically redirect UAV flights away from other air traffic.

Among its other objectives, the Congressional UAV Caucus is pressuring for “UAV-friendly laws” that would permit UAVs to be deployed freely in national airspace.
DOD has taken the lead in the drive to change FAA regulations to allow UAV use. A DOD directive on Sept. 26, 2006 encouraged military nonarmed UAV support domestically for homeland defense and defense support of civil authorities. The Pentagon’s determination to introduce greater UAV use for nonmilitary use at home is evident in its FY2009-Fy2034 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap.

Until FAA, DOD, and DHS, and the UAV industry establish comprehensive guidelines for UAV use of national airspace, FAA and DOD are incrementally expanding UAV flight permission starting with the segregated airspace above military bases and extending to certain low-density airspaces such as the Arizona border. According to one assessment by a U.S. Army War College study, UAV are “increasingly ranging outside restricted military airspace as demand for a persistent airborne presence grows.”

Next: Mythical "Force Multiplier' of High-Tech Border Security

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Drone Lobby in Congress

Since the start of DHS’ drone program it has counted on the strong support of the increasingly influential Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), the El Paso area representative who came to Congress after working 26 years in the Border Patrol, retiring after building a national reputation as a border enforcer as district chief of the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector.

Reyes currently serves as chair of the House Select Intelligence Committee and is a member of the powerful Armed Services Committee. He is a prominent promoter of UAVs, which are tested and partly developed at the Ft. Bliss military complex in El Paso.

Reyes is a member of the little-known Congressional UAV Caucus, whose mission is to “educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of UAVs, actively support further development and acquisition of more capable UAVs, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on UAV use and safety.”

 Mission of Congressional UAV Caucus

The UAV Caucus says that its mission includes "actively support[ing] further development and acquisition of more capable UAVs" and "more effectively engag[ing] the civilian aviation community on UAV use and safety."

Members of the caucus state that they:
  1. Acknowledge the overwhelming value of UAVs to the defense, intelligence, homeland security, and the scientific communities;
  2. Recognize the urgent need to rapidly develop and deploy more UAVs in support of ongoing operations;
  3. Work with the military, industry, NASA, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA),  and other stakeholders to seek fair and equitable solutions to challenges created by UAV operations in the U.S. National Air Space (NAS);
  4. Support our world-class industrial base that engineers, develops, manufactures, and tests UAVs creating thousands of American jobs;
  5. Support policies and budgets that promote a larger, more robust national security UAV capability.

One business beneficiary of Reyes’ enthusiasm for drones is Aerospace Missions, a small company that after setting up in El Paso has received a steady stream of $1 million earmarks by Reyes from 2005 through 2009 to develop miniature sensors for UAVs.

As a member of the Air and Land Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, Reyes notes that the subcommittee is “responsible for funding key programs of importance” to Ft. Bliss and the nearby White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base, including the Future Combat Systems, F-22 fighter aircraft, and Predator UAVs.

As I serve on the House Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee, I have been involved with the development of UAVs and know the importance of the intelligence they provide,” said Reyes in response to questions about his close relationship with Aerospace Missions and other UAV contractors.

UAV proponents, including UAV manufacturers and high-tech advocates within DHS, have not been above using the controversy over the border fence created by the Secure Border Fence Act of 2006 to promote UAVs for border security. This was a major theme at the 2008 Global Border Security Conference and Technology Expo in Austin.

Michael Rosenberg of E.J. Krause, the conference organizer, said: "Our goal is to bring together government and industry leaders to consider technology and policy strategies that move beyond the fence. The government's demand for advanced border technology is increasing and we are committed to providing a unique opportunity for government officials in homeland security and law enforcement to see first-hand what solutions are available to them.”

Another conference speaker was Rick Morgan of Aerospace Missions Corporation, the UAV development company surviving on congressional earmarks by Rep. Reyes and other members of Congress.

Congressional UAV proponents are not working alone. There’s a newly created industry association to parallel the UAV Caucus called the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Systems Association (UAVSI), which has its own congressional advocacy committee and sponsors events. In close cooperation with members of the Congressional UAV Caucus, UAVSI sponsors an annual UAVSI Action Day on Capitol Hill, and congressional tours of UAV manufacturing facilities.

The principal market for UAVs is the military. Drone purchases accounted for more than one-third of the Air Force’s proposed 2010 aircraft budget. While the Predators have thus far been favored by DOD and DHS, other military contractors, notably Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are seeking to makes more inroads into this booming market with its own UAVs.

Congress has passed a flurry of laws and budget authorizations to foster UAVs. Shortly after DHS was created Congress in 2003 directed DHS to study the feasibility of using UAVs, and has repeated this directive in numerous instances since then. The 2003 DOD Authorization Act (P.L. 108-136) required the president to issue a report “on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for support of homeland security missions.”

As part of the 2007 appropriations bill Congress urged DHS to work with the FAA to implement a pilot program that would use UAVs for surveillance on the northern border. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Predators on Our Borders

Predator drones are patrolling the borders, hunting for illegal border crossers and payloads of smuggled marijuana. By 2015 the Department of Homeland Security intends to have the northern and southern land borders, as well as U.S. maritime borders, fully monitored by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).   

Most Predators are deployed by the U.S. military and CIA in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. But outside these shooting wars UAVs – also known as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) – Predators are increasingly being regarded by DHS as part of its high-tech strategy for border security.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the DHS agency that includes the Border Patrol, claims that its UAV program focuses operations on the CBP priority mission of anti-terrorism by helping to identify and intercept potential terrorists and illegal crossborder activity.”

But the assertion that the UAV program is driven by CBP’s priority mission of counterterrorism has not been supported by the short history of UAV deployment since 2004 and is certainly not supported by the results of the aerial surveillance. Occasional news releases from CBP about its UAV program cite the number of illegal immigrants and pounds of seized marijuana.

Homeland Security’s UAV initiative is moving steadily forward bolstered by an array of supporters of high-tech instruments of border security. In Congress and along the border, politicians such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and congressional members such as Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) and Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) are increasingly vocal about the need for UAV surveillance, mirrored on the northern border by North Dakota’s Democratic senators Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad.

The newly formed Congressional UAV Caucus is also putting new legislative weight behind the effort to increase the role of UAVs in homeland security and overseas military operations. Howard “Buck McKeon,” the Republican congressman who represents the San Diego-area district that is home to Predator manufacturer General Atomics is the leading voice of the new congressional caucus and a regular beneficiary of company-sponsored international trips to promote UAVs.

For its part, the UAV industry not only counts on individual company lobbying and campaign contributions but also on the new industry association called the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Association. Also helping is the UAV National Industry Team (UNITE), formed in 2002 to promote expanded UAV use. Its leading members are General Atomics, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.

But it is not as if DHS has been reluctant to deploy UAVs in pursuit of border security. Since 2004 Customs and Border Protection has enthusiastically backed UAV operations, just as it has unreservedly supported the high-tech SBInet. DHS has also joined DOD efforts to persuade the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to open national airspace to UAVs.

Not only is DOD integrating UAVs into military operations but it also eager to put its expanding UAV fleet directly to use in homeland security operations.

The enthusiasm for UAV deployment in homeland security – particularly border security – operations has not been tempered by the obstacles and problems associated with UAVs, including high crash rates, airspace constraints, high cost, and lack of focus on high-priority targets when used for intelligence rather than attack.

Like SBInet, the UAV program of CBP, which is run by the agency’s Office of Air & Marine, is proceeding without adequate oversight, with no cost/benefit evaluation, in apparent contradiction with the agency’s professed “risk-based” mission, and without any defined border security strategy. What is more, CBP has not yet produced the documentation to back its claim that its UAV program is a “force multiplier” – meaning that it enables Border Patrol to do a better job with fewer agents.

Eyes in the Sky

The U.S. Border Patrol began considering the utility of UAVs in the late 1990s, about the same time it began deploying the first electronic surveillance system. But it wasn’t until after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – and the flood of new funding for border security through the newly created DHS – did CBP’s UAV program really take off.

Today, CBP has a fleet of six Predators, with another scheduled for acquisition in 2010. Manufactured by the San Diego-based General Atomics, the Predator UAV includes a sensor system provided by Raytheon. While some UAVs are on automatic pilot, most of the UAVs used for border security and for strictly military operations are remotely piloted, relying on satellite relays to communicate.

Before purchasing its first Predator in 2005, CBP in 2004 and 2005 experimented along the southwestern border with two other drones – the Israeli-made Hermes and Northrop Grumman’s Hunter – as part of its Arizona Border Control Initiative.

Both experiments were deemed successful, although the criteria used to judge the program were not specified. CBP merely cited the number of immigrants arrested and pounds of drugs captured as evidence of its success. CBP noted that the Hunter drone contributed to the apprehensions of 287 illegal immigrants and the seizure of 1,900 pounds of marijuana. Quickly following these UAV pilot projects CBP began the operational use of the first Predator in October 2005.

Seven months later after it began flying, CBP’s first Predator crashed, apparently due to pilot error. The April 2006 Predator crash was a reminder of the high crash rate of UAVs – 100 times higher than manned aircraft. The Air Force recently acknowledges that more than one-third in its UAV fleet has crashed to partially explain its high number of new UAV orders.

According to a May 2008 review of DHS’ UAV program by the Congressional Research Service:
“Because UAV technology is still evolving, there is less redundancy built into the operating system of UAVs than of manned aircraft and until redundant systems are perfected mishap rates are expected to remain high. Additionally, if control systems fail in a manned aircraft, a well-trained pilot is better positioned to find the source of the problem because of his/her physical proximity. If a UAV encountered a similar system failure, or if a UAV landing was attempted during difficult weather conditions, the ground control pilot would be at a disadvantage because he or she is removed from the event. Unlike a manned pilot, the remote pilot would not be able to assess important sensory information such as wind speed.”
Thus far DHS’ UAV program functions as a joint undertaking with the DOD, which allows DHS to use its bases in the borderlands for UAV command centers and has also assisted DHS in accessing airspace. There appears to be no official count of DHS UAVs, but CBP news releases indicate that there are three Predators at Ft. Huachuca/Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista, Arizona, a military town southeast of Tucson and close to the border town of Douglas. In addition, CBP has two Predators at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

The latest Predators – called Guardians by the CBP -- purchased by CBP are slated for sea duty. The sixth CBP UAV will patrol the Caribbean while another one scheduled to come on line in 2010 will watch over the Gulf of Mexico. CBP says will ultimately be used to patrol off the coasts of Central America and Mexico.

The CBP Asst. Commissioner for the Office of Air and Marine operations, Michael Kostelnik, said, “With the introduction of the Guardian, maritime variant of the Predator B, DHS now has a powerful tool and force multiplier to increase maritime domain awareness and confront threats to our borders.”

According to CBP, the UAV command center at the Grand Forks Air Force Base will have a $2.7 million annual budget and will employ nearly 50 federal employees and contractors. The northern deployment of UAVs by DHS at the Grand Forks command UAV command center will also benefit from the nearby DOD Center of Excellence for UAV Education, a joint undertaking of University of North Dakota, DOD, and corporations like Lockheed Martin that are developing the UAV military and homeland security markets.

By 2015 CBP says it expects to employ the Predator across the entire southern and northern border regions operated by UAV ground command stations across the country. 

Next: The Border UAV Lobby 

Photo: Predators Awaiting the Hunt at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona

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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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