Homeland Security officials defend virtual border fence program

Homeland Security Department officials Wednesday defended management of the effort to deploy a virtual fence along the Southern border, saying that they would rather delay implementation to ensure the program works.

During a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Ralph Basham also took issue with the committee for the title of the hearing, "Mismanagement, missteps and missed benchmarks: Why the virtual fence has not become reality."

He said the agency would not rush to deploy something that doesn't work. The agency's priority is to get the virtual fence, known as the Secure Border Initiative or SBInet, right before deploying it.

He voiced frustration that the agency has been criticized for moving too fast to deploy unproven technology while also being blasted for missing deadlines. "While I can't say SBInet is not without problems, it is not a failure," Basham said, adding that the agency's "commitment to get it right" has never been stronger.

Basham's comments came in response to the latest Government Accountability Office report on the project. "SBInet program uncertainties, such as not fully defined program expectations, changes in deployment schedules and confusion over the applicability of environmental regulations continue to delay SBInet technology deployments," GAO's Richard Stana told the committee. Deployment of the first phase of the project in Tucson and Yuma, Ariz., and El Paso, Texas, was supposed to be completed in 2008, but it has been pushed to early next year.

When asked by Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., whether the technology requested for the virtual fence's demonstration project is working as expected, Stana said it "has not met expectations" and the contract language was written in a manner that makes it difficult to assess.

"We were told that this is not a complicated procurement," Thompson said. The committee wants to "see whether the taxpayers are getting what they paid for." Basham and his deputy, Jayson Ahern, noted that there has been some confusion over the purpose of the demonstration project and even if it has not operated as hoped, agency officials have learned much from the effort. "That's what a proof of concept is," Ahern said.

Basham stressed that SBInet and other technologies are just one piece of the agency's comprehensive effort to secure the border, which also includes adding more border patrol agents, using unmanned aerial vehicles and constructing a physical fence along 670 miles of the border. Basham told the committee that all 670 miles of the physical fence will be completed, under construction or under contract by December.

CPB has asked Congress for approval to shift some funds from SBInet to help deal with higher fuel and material costs for the physical fence.

Homeland Security Committee ranking member Peter King, R-N.Y., defended the agency's efforts and chastised the committee for failing to pass a Homeland Security authorization bill. "So while you're sitting here today listening to abuse about what hasn't been done, I think a lot of people should be pointing fingers at themselves as far as what hasn't been done on this end as far as getting the job done," he said.

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