Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Shocking But Predictable Failure of the Virtual Fence

Border security is a concept that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 has gained broad support. Operations that previously were commonly described as border control are now routinely called border security. 

High-tech border-security programs existed prior to 9/11. But since the terrorist attacks the control of the country’s land borders has been deemed a matter of U.S. national security. As a result, the government’s purse has been pried wide open to fund high-tech projects operated by such private contractors as Boeing and General Atomics.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the DHS agency that includes the Border Patrol, says it is committed to “a comprehensive and systemic upgrading of the technology used in controlling the border, including increased manned aerial assets, expanded use of UAVs, and next-generation detection technology.”

Immigration restrictionists and anti-immigrant nationalists have long been demanding that the federal government secure the southwestern border against the much-hyped invasion from the South. Since Sept. 11 governmental and business homeland-security advocates have been insisting that that no cost should be spared to stop what DHS calls “dangerous people and goods” from entering the country either from the south or north.

Meanwhile, even the leading liberal immigration reformers have joined the border security bandwagon. They generally regard increased border controls as a necessary foundation to gain bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform.

High-tech solutions for border security are highly preferred border-security solution. Unlike the border fence, electronic surveillance and drones aren’t unsightly, don’t have much of an environmental impact, and are commonly regarded as the only way to monitor the vast stretches of northern and southern borderlands.

Democratic Party presidential candidates, Obama and Clinton, backing away from earlier support for the border fence (both voted for the Secure Border Fence Act of 2006), asserted that technological surveillance is the preferable border-security solution.

High-tech border security, however, has been mostly a matter of technological wish-fulfillment policymaking. The Department of Homeland Security has pursued high-tech border security programs since 1997 with little or no evidence that they are technologically feasible and with scant regard for their high price tags.

DHS says that its border-control and immigration-enforcement programs are “risk-based.” However, it has not issued work orders or program guidelines that ensure that these massively expensive programs target truly dangerous of people and goods from entering the country. Instead, the surveillance, when functioning, has mostly resulted in the capture of illegal border crossers in search of work and family and of plastic-wrapped bags of smuggled marijuana.

SBInet – The “System of Systems”

As part of its new Secure Border Initiative (SBI), DHS launched a high-tech component called SBInet in April 2006. According to then DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, SBInet would “transform border control through technology and infrastructure.”

The Secure Border Initiative, announced by Secretary Chertoff in November 2005, is grandiose, multidimensional, and unfocused. Framed from the start as a border security initiative, Chertoff said that SBI would ensure “operational control” of U.S. land borders in five years -- by the end of 2010.

Yet SBI was described as being about more than border control. It is a state of mind that no longer limits border control operations to the border. It was, as described by DHS, “a departure from traditional ways of thinking about border security.”  According to Border Patrol Deputy Chief Ronald Colburn:

“SBI calls for a new, transformational approach to border security. The border is not merely a physical frontier, and effectively securing it requires attention to processes that begin far outside U.S. borders, occur at the border, and continue to all regions of the United States. SBI brings a systems approach to meet this challenge; its mission is to integrate and unify the systems, programs and policies needed to secure the border and efficiently enforce.”

(Colburn retired from the Border Patrol in the spring of 2009 and then joined Command Consulting Group in November 2009. He was welcomed to the national security consulting agency by his former boss at DHS.  Ron Colburn is one of the foremost border security experts in the world today and helped me lead a critical U.S. Department of Homeland Security agency through a period of unprecedented growth and transformation,” said W. Ralph Basham, former Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and principal at CCG. “We are excited to have him join our international security advisory team and I know our clients will benefit from the experience of a leader who revolutionized our approach to border security and was on the ground for some of the biggest gains ever in operational control of our nation’s borders.”

While at DHS Colburn also served as Deputy Executive Director of the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) and at the White House as Director of Law Enforcement in the Homeland Security Council. As part of its “team” Command Consulting Group includes 21 former DHS officials. )

From the beginning SBInet was plagued by its lack of definition. Nobody at DHS knew what SBInet was or what it would look like. DHS knew only that it wanted a technical infrastructure system to complement the two other components – tactical infrastructure (mainly border fence) and personnel (Border Patrol agents) -- of SBI.

Year after year the Border Patrol offered blithe assurances to Congress, to the GAO, to its own inspector general, and to the public that SBInet was progressing. But it never offered any clear definition of the project, a credible price estimate, or strategic plan.

The Border Patrol has alternated the estimated cost of SBInet, saying at first that would cost $7.6 billion and then reversing the numbers saying more recently that it would cost $6.7 to deploy along southwestern border. These numbers were presented to congressional committees and the media without any source material to explain the derivation of the estimate – and without any detailed overall plan.

The multibillion project that Congress authorized has little more than a one-page description on CBP’s website outlining this grandiose scheme. In an interview, SBI director Mark Borkowski said that there exists a strategic plan for SBInet. However, despite repeated subsequent requests, the Border Patrol was unable to say where this plan could be located.

The lack of details about SBInet and the obfuscation by the Border Patrol (evident, for example, at the September 2006 press conference on the Boeing contract) has made it exceeding difficult for the media to report on the project and helps explain the lack of news reporting on SBInet over the past three and a half years.

The vagueness of DHS’s vision for SBInet was strikingly evident in the department’s request for proposals (RFP) for the project:

“As ordered, the Contractor will provide solutions that include the full range of services, products and management required to ensure accomplishment of the SBInet program objectives. This includes addressing all components of border security in conjunction with the program objectives, developing solutions based upon the optimum mix of personnel, processes, infrastructure and technology, and deploying the solutions to move from our current border strategy to one where the defined border areas are effectively secured.”

It was to be a “system of systems,” according to DHS. It should be “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.”

Next: Handing Border Security Over to Boeing

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