Lawmaker calls on DHS to prove electronic border fence works

The chairman of the House committee overseeing the Homeland Security Department today called on the department to not pay a contractor for the first phase of work on the electronic border fence until it can prove it works as promised.

Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, sent a letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff asking him to defer payment for the first phase of the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet). Under that phase, known as Project 28, DHS is erecting a high-tech surveillance system consisting of radars, cameras and ground sensors connected by a wireless and satellite network along a 28-mile section in southern Arizona.

"It is my understanding that the department is in the final stages of determining whether to accept formally SBInet's Project 28 and to commit the United States to paying the full contract amount of $20 million," Thompson wrote. "I urge you to defer acceptance until you are certain that Project 28 performs as it was originally billed, i.e., an operational tool that will help the Border Patrol secure our nation's borders.

"I am concerned that, in Project 28's current state, this will not be the case," Thompson continued. "Neither the committee's last visit to the Tucson, Arizona area, nor the Oct. 24, 2007, joint subcommittee hearing resolved our concerns. Indeed, they only raised new questions."

Project 28 is the first task order under the SBInet program. In September 2006, DHS awarded the SBInet contract, worth a total of $2.5 billion, to Boeing Co. Neither Boeing nor DHS has disclosed the fine details of the SBInet architecture. (See "Vast Expanse," Government Executive, April 1.)

Boeing was supposed to turn over Project 28 to the Customs and Border Protection bureau in June. But Boeing missed the deadline due to a variety of technical problems, including systems integration, rain activating radars and a long lag time to display video images from field cameras to a command center, the Government Accountability Office reported in October.

In September, Chertoff said he would withhold payment to Boeing until the company worked out the bugs in the system. SBInet also has experienced information security weaknesses.

In his letter, Thompson said he is concerned that Project 28 will provide Border Patrol with "little, if any, functionality, it did not already possess" and said the committee has "started to hear suggestions that Project 28 was a 'demonstration project' or a 'test bed' for future technologies."

Thompson said calling Project 28 a test bed is inconsistent with what CBP officials claimed when the project was announced. CBP officials "continually and repeatedly described Project 28 as the 'first operational order awarded under SBInet,'" according to the Thompson letter. Boeing officials, he added, stated that Project 28 "would arm the Border Patrol with data information they never had before."

If the expectations are not likely to be met, Thomson told Chertoff that "Congress must be alerted immediately. … As it now appears, the technological problems encountered are such that Project 28 has become more of a technology test bed, than a new operational tool for the Border Patrol, and the department needs to address this need directly."

Thompson raised the possibility that the project could affect Chertoff's credibility. "I am as disturbed by this apparent lack of candor and the attempt to 'spin' Project 28's trouble as I am with the technical difficulties you have experienced with the initiative," he wrote. "Technological problems can be fixed. Credibility, once lost, is unlikely ever to be regained."

DHS did not return calls for comment by deadline. Boeing deferred to DHS for comment.

Information available on the Boeing SBInet Web site and from residents of Arivaca, Ariz., a border-town site for one of the SBInet's 90-foot towers, indicates Boeing intends to use both terrestrial wireless systems and satellite communications to relay camera and sensor data to central command posts.

Jon Healy, director of Techno Patriots, an Arizona-based volunteer group that has developed a system of cameras to monitor the border, said "if I had the money, I could have installed a wireless infrastructure for the government in a month."

Healy said it took him two years to install a five-tower wireless network, which covers 1,600 miles of Cochise County in Southern Arizona.

Though the Techno Patriots system lacks the radars and ground sensors used by Boeing, Healy said it still features high-quality video and thermal imaging cameras at a cost of about $100,000. Healy added that Techno Patriots built its wireless system around commercial and proprietary Wi-Fi systems.

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