DHS buying SBInet-like system for border despite uncertainties, GAO says

Border patrol judged surveillance system to be useful and intends to replicate it in some areas

The Homeland Security Department intends to buy electronic surveillance systems for the southwestern border similar to the canceled Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet) system despite uncertainties about the cost effectiveness and operational effectiveness of the new systems, an official of the Government Accountability Office has said.

DHS started a new border security strategy for the border of the United States and Mexico in January after canceling the remainder of the SBInet video and radar surveillance system currently operating on towers over a 53-mile area in Arizona. The SBInet system struggled with persistent technical problems, cost overruns and schedule delays.

Under the new strategy, the department proposes to spend $242 million in fiscal 2012 to buy a mix of technology, including integrated fixed-tower surveillance systems similar to SBInet, to secure the remainder of the Mexico-Arizona border. The money also would pay for remote video surveillance systems and portable video systems.

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The border patrol has found SBInet to be a helpful system and intends to install similar integrated fixed-tower surveillance systems at strategic locations along the U.S.-Mexico border, Richard Stana, director of security and justice issues at GAO, told the House Homeland Security Committee's Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee March 15.

“On the basis of user feedback, the Border Patrol considers the current SBInet capability to be useful, including providing continuous surveillance in border areas where none existed before and enhancing agent safety when responding to potential threats,” Stana said at the hearing.

However, the new strategy has gaps, Stana added.

“Due to a number of reasons, the cost-effectiveness and operational effectiveness and suitability of the Integrated Fixed Tower system is not yet clear,” Stana said.

An "Analysis of Alternatives" developed by DHS “cited a range of uncertainties” about the new technology mix, and it is not clear how that analyses and conclusions were factored into planning and budget decisions regarding the optimal mix of future technology deployments, Stana said.

Also, a separate analysis of SBInet’s effectiveness and suitability by the Army’s Test and Evaluation Command had not been completed at the time of DHS' decision to proceed with the integrated fixed towers, Stana added.

DHS officials did not agree with GAO’s analysis of the uncertainties in the new border technology strategy or with GAO’s comments about the significance of the Army testing, according to Stana.

Stana said he would continue to monitor the project closely and was not making any new recommendations.

Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner for DHS’ Office of Technology, Innovation and Acquistion, also testified along with U.S. Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher and Michael Kostelnik, assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection for the Office of Air and Marine.

The SBInet system, which began development in 2006, was first intended to cover the entire U.S.-Mexico border. A 28-mile prototype began operating in 2008, and the SBInet Block I permanent tower segment spanning 53 miles in Arizona was completed last year and is supporting border patrol operations. Estimated development costs to date have been about $775 million to $1 billion.

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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