Senate committee chairman suggests killing the virtual fence
Lieberman: Border security system should be 'shaken up'
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Apr 21, 2010
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.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.