Senate committee chairman suggests killing the virtual fence

Lieberman: Border security system should be 'shaken up'

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has said the Homeland Security Department’s virtual fence electronic surveillance project at the border of the United States and Mexico is a failure and and suggested it might be scrapped.

“By any measure, SBInet [the Secure Border Initiative Network] has been a failure – a classic example of a program that was grossly oversold and has badly underdelivered,” Lieberman said after his committee held a hearing on border security April 20. “This program needs to be shaken up. It should be brought to the point where it works or we should scrap it.”

Committee Member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, “Hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money so far has been wasted. There has been a lack of oversight and a lack of accountability. The virtual fence has been a complete failure.“

About $700 million has been spent since 2006 on the SBInet system composed of cameras, radars and sensors and linked to a central communications center. A 28-mile prototype was finished in Arizona in 2008 and a 53-mile permanent system is under construction at the border of Arizona and Mexico by contractor Boeing Co. The system is projected to cost $7 billion for the entire southwestern border.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in January started a reassessment of project. In March, DHS officials redirected $50 million in SBInet funding toward other border technology projects.

Lieberman also said that the DHS agency "U.S. Customs and Border Protection seems to have effectively told Boeing – the contractor – ‘Go ahead and do what you can do as quickly as you can.’ ”

“Without clear goals and expectations, both CBP and Boeing underestimated the complexity of building the system. And the Border Patrol agents themselves – the people who would be implementing and relying on the system every day – were not consulted on what their actual needs were,” Lieberman said. “I am also troubled that the program office responsible for SBInet is heavily dependent on contractors, weakening CBP's own organic capability to manage the program and ensure capability.”

Also, Lieberman objected to the award of a single contract to Boeing. That means that CBP does not get the benefit of competition for individual tasks undertaken for the SBInet program.

CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin agreed at the hearing that the "original conception [of SBInet] has not been delivered upon." He said the agency has developed a robust management program for Block I of SBInet, which is the 53 miles being deployed.

“We are also taking steps to improve our competence in the management of complex acquisition programs,” Bersin said. “We have redesigned our SBI organization to develop and retain skilled government personnel in the disciplines that are key to successful program management. We are also strengthening our oversight and management of contractor activities and ensuring that requirements are clearly and concisely communicated.“

After Napolitano’s analysis is completed, if it suggests that alternative technology options represent the best balance of capability and cost effectiveness for border security, resources will be redirected from SBInet to those other options, Bersin said.

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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Reader comments

Tue, Apr 27, 2010

It is interesting that the focus is on the southern portion of the program. The northern (Buffalo and Detroit) systems have been accepted by DHS and classified as successful, on time, and under budget. The issues stem from a poorly crafted SOW and midstream changes that were given verbally by the contracting office.Think of it in these terms. DHS tells you to build a virtual fence but they do not give you any concrete specifications as to what it should consist of, what operational parameters it should have, nor anything but a general scope of capability. Then appoint a program manager that has no clue abotu technology, and you get what you deserve. Try blaming the government agencies for their faults for a change.If they told me to build 10 tons of nails, I would make very large nails. They would meet the spec but not the intent of the contract. Craft a clear SOW and you'll get what you want.

Fri, Apr 23, 2010 Anthony Virginia

This is very typical of the goverments desire to address security concerns. They do not follow through with oversite and relying on personnel who have little to no expertise in security matters. One of the key items in the write up is, they did not talk to the personnel on the ground, the end user. Regards,

Thu, Apr 22, 2010 John Collins Kentucky

Our government or I should say our senate and house representatives are so incompetent with our tax dollars that they should be arrested and tried for theft and/or fraudulent conduct and have to give up their seat. This abuse of power is criminal and "We the People" never seem to learn and they continue to get elected. Is it really by vote or is it big money. The term of offcie should be for no more then two terms if that. If the truth is that once they have served one term they receive their salary for life, the that practice also needs to be abolished. The service we citizens receive form ournso few leaders is unfathomable and they need to be held accountable not as a democrat or republican but as a person who shows us how to serve Americans not persons out for themselves. In my opinion, Mitch Mcconell and Nancy Pelosi are two such examples of what one needs to do to succeed at the expense of "We the People". We need prayer in our schools and God in our corner because our government isn't at our side.

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