Border tech program is plagued by early setbacks

Technical glitches have prevented the Homeland Security Department's new high-tech border security program from becoming operational, prompting congressional fears that the project could go seriously astray.

The problems also come at one of the worst possible times, as Senate leaders are counting on the Bush administration's ability to bolster border security as leverage to persuade enough lawmakers to vote for immigration legislation.

The first phase of the so-called SBInet program ran into technology complications earlier this month that have yet to be resolved, department and congressional officials said.

Dubbed Project 28, the first phase consists of deploying nine mobile surveillance towers with radars, cameras and communications equipment along a 28-mile stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border. Border Patrol agents are expected to use the towers, along with upgraded laptop computers and new command-and-control centers, to detect and respond to illegal activity.

But Project 28 missed its first deadline for becoming operational about two weeks ago, and concerns are growing in Congress that the program could have problems similar to the Coast Guard's Deepwater fleet modernization.

"Project 28 is a pilot project, designed to work out kinks and show whether the SBInet technology works," said House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairman David Price, D-N.C. "In fact, our homeland security appropriations bill requires additional accountability measures of the department before SBInet is implemented more widely along the border."

Homeland Security spokesman Michael Friel could not say when Project 28 will become operational. "We are working hard to resolve these challenges as quickly as possible so that we can deploy or make this system operational and give the agents the tools they need to better secure the border," he said.

Friel did not know specifically what technical problems the program is having and was unable to provide an expert to comment for this story by press time.

Project 28 is heavily dependent on technology. Homeland Security estimates that the cost of securing each mile of the border with fencing is about $3 million, compared to about $1 million using technology. But if the technology doesn't work, it will give ammunition to lawmakers who want more traditional fencing built.

The department also got on bad footing earlier this month with House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. Agency officials testified publicly on June 7 that Project 28 was on schedule but then called the next day and said the effort would be delayed until June 20. The day after that, the department told the committee the project would be delayed beyond June 20.

"The department's failure to be forthcoming and the repeatedly slipping project deadlines not only impedes Congress' ability to provide appropriate oversight of the SBInet program but also undermines the department's credibility with respect to this initiative," Thompson wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff last week.

When asked for comment for this story, Boeing would only say: "We continue to work toward the resolution of the few remaining technical matters on the program."

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