Concern mounts about latest effort to control U.S. borders

Critics worry project will become one more in a long line of DHS big-ticket programs to end up over cost, behind schedule and, in some cases, with ineffective results.

Patrick Flynn was the only agent nearby when the Border Patrol dispatcher said a sensor had detected movement at a site in the Arizona desert near Nogales.

On a television monitor showing footage from a subterranean camera, Flynn saw a group of men wading toward the border through an underground tunnel. They were approaching a section he knew very well.

Wearing a Border Patrol white polo shirt and riding an agency-issued mountain bike, Flynn didn't have the proper equipment to go underground: no boots or night vision goggles or more sophisticated technology not yet available that day in 2004. Nevertheless, he grabbed the key to the tunnel's entrance, readied his flashlight and began his descent.

Leaders at the Homeland Security Department want new tools to bring agents like Flynn out of the dark, and last year launched a multibillion-dollar acquisition effort to get them. But SBInet, as it is called, has become a magnet for criticism on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. Critics worry that the project will become one more in a long line of DHS big-ticket programs to end up over cost, behind schedule and, in some cases, with ineffective results.

The 6,000 miles of U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico include terrain ranging from urban to rural, desert to mountains, so DHS wants to deploy a variety of defense systems. Last fall, the department tapped the Boeing Co. to be its integrator, collecting and connecting all the various sensors, cameras, command-and-control systems and other technologies that could be used on the border.

The performance-based contract asks Boeing to design the project itself, with the work performed incrementally through a series of individually negotiated task orders. The contract structure means few people have the total picture of the finished product the government is buying at a cost that could reach $30 billion.

Homeland Security officials contend they have learned lessons from past failures and have created a new kind of contract that will help keep rein on the behemoth project. But they aren't sanguine: "Quite simply, there is no risk-free approach to an acquisition of this size and scope," DHS Customs and Border Protection Commissioner W. Ralph Basham said at a Feb. 27 House Appropriations hearing.

Managing Mega-Projects

The Morley Avenue tunnel drains flood water from Nogales, Ariz., a 20,000-person town on the Mexican border about 70 miles south of Tucson. Illegal border crossers long have used this and other drainage tunnels to sneak across un-detected. It is just tall enough to stand in, and has many unofficial exits. Water often is shin-high. Bats sometimes line the ceilings. At one spot near the Mexican border, the Border Patrol has welded a makeshift metal gate to keep would-be immigrants from passing. But many of them find ways through it.

On that day in early 2004, Flynn carefully opened the door to the tunnel so that a sudden shaft of light would not alert the group of border crossers to his presence. Once inside, he turned left and trudged about five feet, the noise of the water flow drowning out the sound of his wading footsteps. He settled into the darkness a few feet to the north of the metal gate.

Someone had cut a hole in it, and the border crossers were sneaking through. Flynn did nothing. As his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, he waited for the men to come to him.

Flynn and the other Border Patrol agents were using a system of sensors, cameras and databases installed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1997. If one of about 10,000 ground sensors nationwide detected motion, heat, vibrations or metal, officers in a control center trained video surveillance cameras mounted on poles, towers and buildings on the sensor to see who -- or what -- tripped it.

But the system was a mess. The cameras covered only 2 percent of the border. Many of the sensors could not distinguish between animals and humans; other sensors and cameras broke down in inclement weather and were otherwise difficult to maintain. Auditors claimed that the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service, which handled the purchase of the system, had been ripped off by contractors overcharging by tens of millions of dollars for equipment that in some cases didn't work.

DHS eventually stopped work on that system and, in September 2004, promised a replacement -- a virtual fence of interconnected sensors, cameras and advanced border technology known collectively as America's Shield Initiative. But DHS repeatedly pushed back the release date for the contract solicitation, and then never released it. The next incarnation of border protection was the Secure Border Initiative, announced in 2005.

It is to be a three-legged stool, in the parlance of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson, composed of a guest worker program, increased enforcement of immigration laws within the United States and control of the border with additional staffing and new technology. The technology piece was dubbed SBInet.

Since Boeing became the SBInet integrator -- meaning that, with approval from DHS officials, the company will design every part of the border program from communications equipment to how agents process apprehended immigrants -- the department has issued three task orders for work with one more set to come out soon. Boeing is building a border barrier of metal bollards along the perimeter of a military training range in southwest Arizona, and equipping three Arizona Border Patrol vehicles with laptops, satellite phones and other communications equipment.

The firm soon will install two command-and- control centers, new ground sensors and two prototype mobile towers with sensors and cameras along a 28-mile stretch of border south of Tucson. In the coming months, Boeing will install another set of technologies on the Texas border.

The three-year contract award to Boeing guarantees the contractor only $2 million, and department officials have been clear that they intend to buy some border technologies elsewhere. Still, the indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract makes many nervous. While some estimates put the total cost at around $2 billion, the department's inspector general pegs it at $8 billion to $30 billion.

The department does not have a spotless record with such large, open-ended contracts. The multibillion-dollar entry-exit system, US VISIT, has been dinged by auditors. The Transportation Security Administration's contract to connect 429 airports with a telecommunications infrastructure was rapped for going way over its initial $1 billion ceiling. And most recently, the department's Deepwater program to modernize the Coast Guard's air and sea fleet has been tainted: Costs soared from $17 billion to $24 billion and the agency suspended part of the program after discovering cracks in hulls of refurbished patrol boats.

Procurement experts cite several reasons why big-ticket, system-of-systems procurements such as SBInet often end up over cost and behind schedule. Most involve highly complex technologies that are almost guaranteed to suffer development setbacks.

On the government side, expediency tends to overwhelm other considerations when large acquisitions are in the works. Faced with a potential problem, a procurement manager might push the product out the door and vow to resolve the issue later, rather than stopping the project to evaluate it more closely and risk a potential six-month delay. This, says a congressional staffer, was the problem with Deepwater.

Managing mega-projects means striking a delicate balance between schedule, cost and the quality of the product, according to auditors and procurement experts. Changes in one area can cascade through the entire system. A budget cut pushes back the scheduled delivery of a piece of software, for example. Other components that depend on the software then must push back their schedules, driving up costs. And if the government requirements aren't clearly defined at the outset, managers don't have guidelines to help them make tough decisions and the program can veer off course.

"The best you can do is create a controlled scramble," says former DHS procurement chief Gregory D. Rothwell, who is now a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton. "And in a knowing way, [you] try to manage the iterative changes."

Repeating the Past

Auditors say DHS appears to be repeating some of its past mistakes as SBInet begins. Seizing on these reports, the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has been vocal and shrill, convening a February hearing to discuss Deepwater and SBInet on the same day.

"Deepwater and SBInet are at completely different stages of the procurement process, but they share something important in common: Virtually every detail is being outsourced from the government to private contractors," Waxman said. "The government is relying on private contractors to design the programs, build them and even conduct oversight over them. As the Deepwater experience shows, this can be a prescription for enormous waste, fraud and abuse."

Reports from the Government Accountability Office and from the DHS inspector general have pointed to the understaffed SBInet program office as a potential problem. The department is counting on adding 76 more staff members by September to manage Boeing's work, nearly half of those contract staff. That surge won't even account for typical staff turnover, for which the department has no plan, nor will it fully offset the departure this summer of 3,000 National Guard members who have been supplementing Border Patrol efforts.

In fact, the department's SBInet program office had no permanent office and only 13 staff members -- eight of them contractors -- when it issued the solicitation last year. The office had grown by September, but most employees still worked for contractors at the time Boeing won the project. The first task orders were issued the next day; Boeing was ready to begin work, but DHS arguably wasn't ready to manage it. Procurement experts say this was one of the mistakes common to the TSA and Deepwater contracts.

"It's like if you're going to run a marathon," says Randolph C. Hite, GAO's director of information technology architecture and systems issues. "You want to be prepared to execute a marathon. You could go out and start to run a marathon now, but the chances are that you'd have problems."

Magic Wand

SBInet Executive Director Gregory Giddens certainly is in a good position to learn from the problems with Deepwater. He was the deputy program executive officer of that Coast Guard program. He and other DHS officials insist they are doing things differently from Deepwater, and even their critics admit the department appears to have learned some lessons.

The SBInet program staff will not share office space with contract employees as was the case with Deepwater. And DHS has been more responsive and forthcoming with information than it had been during previous, high-profile projects, auditors say. Also, in contrast to Deepwater and the now-defunct ASI border program, SBInet does not call for deep-pocket capital investments. Instead, it's based largely on currently available technologies, including -- at least at first -- physical fencing.

"One of the lessons we learned is, when we put out the request for proposals and evaluated the bids, we actually looked not to get cutting-edge Star Wars-types of proposals, but proven technology that has actually been deployed in the field," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at a Feb. 8 House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee hearing.

And even the harshest critics concede that DHS appears to be advancing deliberately, unrolling the program in pilot projects and task orders worth tens of millions of dollars, not hundreds. This also addresses staffing shortages, says one defender of the department, because DHS only issues task orders it believes it has enough people to manage.

Another contrast with Deepwater, is that the SBInet contract makes clear that Boeing is not in charge of everything, officials say. DHS has a say in subcontracting decisions, and plans to acquire certain SBInet elements from other firms through other contracts. Last fall, the department bought VHF radios from Motorola through an existing contract. On the northern border, where DHS does not expect work to begin before 2009, unmanned aerial vehicles are particularly well suited to patrolling the vast, remote expanses of terrain. Firms such as Northrop Grumman Corp., which markets several UAVs but is not an SBInet partner, are angling for work on the U.S.-Canadian divide.

"We are all over [Boeing]," Chertoff said at the appropriations hearing. "And in conversations after the award, I made it clear to [Boeing] senior management that we were going to take a very skeptical eye and a very hard look at what they were doing, because I think both the department and the business community have a lot to prove in how we move forward with this."

Now, safeguards on paper must translate into real life. Procurement experts say DHS officials could feel locked into Boeing -- even if it does not meet the department's requirements -- because many months and tens of millions of dollars will have gone into the company's approach.

"If there's a magic wand [for managing large contracts], it's the word 'no,' " says a congressional staffer generally complimentary of the department's SBInet efforts. "That takes someone fairly high up who's very confident in his own authority to say no to a contractor. It's a hard thing to do."

Those decisions will start to come into play soon. Boeing has put almost no new equipment in the Arizona desert. But within months, that will change as the desert blooms with towers, sensors and other pieces of security equipment.

Locked In

Back in 2004, Patrick Flynn crouched in anticipation in an underground tunnel in that very desert.

He waited a few feet away from the metal gate, ready to draw his weapon if necessary. The border crossers had found the hole and poured through like flood-water. The last man went back to replace the piece of cut metal to hide their passage; in reality, he was locking the group in.

With all the crossers on the northern side of the gate, Flynn suddenly shined his flashlight on their faces. They flinched in astonishment. Their surprise turned to disappointment as Flynn escorted them out of the tunnel and radioed the Border Patrol dispatcher to pick them up.

Found to be first-time violators, they were handed over to Mexican immigration officials.

Those who were Mexican citizens would be released, free to try again later.