SBInet redux? GAO criticizes gaps in planning for next border technologies

Bringing back echoes of the failed “SBInet” project, the Homeland Security Department appears to be plunging ahead on a Southwestern border security technology project once again without sufficient planning in advance, according to a new federal audit.

Customs and Border Protection “does not have the information needed to fully support and implement its Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan in accordance with DHS and Office of Management and Budget guidance,” the Government Accountability Office concluded in its report, issued Nov. 4.

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The setback is the latest in a series of controversies over border technology. In the most recent previous effort, begun in 2006, DHS spent about $1 billion to develop and install the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet) camera and radar system along 53 miles of the Arizona border. Secretary Janet Napolitano canceled the controversial program in January 2011 because she said it failed to meet security objectives.

Customs and Border Protection then began developing the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan based on a mix of fixed towers, mobile surveillance equipment, hand-held devices and unmanned aerial vehicles. Under the strategy, the most cost-effective mix of those tools would be selected, based on the needs of each geographic area along the border.

With $185 million allocated to the new plan in fiscal 2011 and $242 million requested for fiscal 2012, the agency expects to spend about $1.5 billion on the new strategy over 10 years, the GAO said.

However, the GAO report calls into question whether the department’s new strategy is valid and whether the business case for the technologies is sufficient to justify its costs.

In developing the plan, the agency conducted an analysis of alternatives and reached out to potential vendors for information.

“However, CBP has not documented the analysis justifying the specific types, quantities, and deployment locations of border surveillance technologies proposed in the plan. Best practices for developing and managing costs indicate that a business case analysis should be rigorous enough that independent parties can review it and clearly understand why a particular alternative was chosen to support mission requirements. Without documentation of the analysis, there is no way to verify the process CBP followed, identify how the underlying analyses were used, assess the validity of the decisions made, or justify the funding requested for the Plan,” the GAO said.

The congressional watchdog made four recommendations to CBP to improve the planning for the new technologies, including meeting documentation and internal control standards and applying metrics for performance. DHS officials agreed with the recommendations.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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