DHS pushes back schedule for deploying virtual fence

The prototype border security project that the Homeland Security Department accepted last week lacks the operational capabilities that DHS had hoped it would have. As a result, the department has extended the time frame for the first phase of SBInet by three years, government auditors said.

DHS accepted Boeing’s system of cameras, sensors, towers and software to secure a 28-mile stretch of the Arizona border last week under the assumptions that the system was a value-add and a building block. Lawmakers of both parties have said they thought Project 28 would meet the overall operational goals of SBInet, DHS’ multiyear, multibillion-dollar effort to use technology and infrastructure to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.

Lawmakers were also angry that Customs and Border Protection had extended the schedule for implementing the first phase of SBInet technology by three years, until the end of 2011.

Project 28 was expected to be operational early last summer, but software integration problems delayed it. Lawmakers have questioned if the decision to accept the system in its current form was the result of diminishing expectations.

“It’s not really what they had envisioned,” Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice at the Government Accountability Office, said at today’s joint hearing on SBInet by two subcommittees of House Homeland Security Committee.

Although testing is not complete, Project 28’s ability to detect intrusions is expected to be lower than the rate of 95 percent, plus or minus 5 percent, that DHS wants.

“After so many years of promises and testing and millions of dollars spent, we are no closer to a technology solution for really securing the border,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). “This is unacceptable, unacceptable – it’s what’s holding up comprehensive immigration reform.”

Jayson Ahern, CBP’s deputy commissioner, said at the hearing that technology and Project 28 were never meant to be the only solution to providing border security.

However, lawmakers said they were told that Project 28 was going to be an operational prototype. They are concerned that CBP now plans to use a new common operating picture system, which Boeing was chosen to develop under a separate $64 million task order in December. That system would replace much of the equipment developed under Project 28.

“The administration does not understand that this issue is on fire across the country,” said Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), ranking minority member of the Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism Subcommittee, one of the subcommittees that held the hearing. “It wasn’t us who made Project 28 a big deal. It was [DHS] Secretary [Michael] Chertoff.”

In a statement ,Chertoff said the December task order for the next-generation common operating picture software was a planned investment and was not awarded to fix anything, but to build on what was learned in Project 28.

Stana said that although Project 28 lacked some capabilities, the lessons it taught the department and Boeing could still prove worthwhile.

Roger Krone, president of network and space systems at Boeing, said the company should have allowed the border patrol agents who would be using the technology to work with it so they could have seen what would -- and would not -- have worked.

David Aguilar, CBP’s chief, told lawmakers he questioned from the beginning why CBP agents and senior managers were not allowed to test the technology while it was being developed.

Lawmakers have criticized the decision to let Boeing draw up many of the specifications for the Project 28 task order.

Krone, president of network and space systems at Boeing, said the company had learned other lessons from Project 28’s troubles, such as CBP’s need for more capable command and control software and for more integration and testing before development.

Krone said Boeing and CBP were unhappy with the performance of the system and decided to replace it.

GAO’s Stana noted that Boeing had met the Project 28 task order’s requirements of providing a test bed with lessons learned and leaving behind some capabilities.

However, lawmakers are angry that it will cost more money to deploy the new technologies developed in other task orders back to the Project 28 site.

Souder called it a very expensive school.

“I’m glad that Boeing had decided to spend their own money to try and iron out some of the myriad problems the system has experiences, but I’m still not convinced we’ve gotten what we were supposed to get,” said Rep. Christopher Carney (D-Penn.), chairman of the Management, Investigations and Oversight subcommittee, which co-hosted the hearing.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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