Contractor problems hold up border fence project

The Bush administration's program for building a virtual fence along the nation's borders will be delayed at least another month because of problems with integrating technology, and Homeland Security Department officials are now threatening to go back to the drawing board.

Homeland Security hired defense contracting giant Boeing Integrated Defense Systems to develop the so-called SBInet program, which is supposed to use technology, personnel and infrastructure to control the borders. Under the first phase of the contract, Boeing was supposed to develop an integrated system for 28 miles of border in Arizona by June.

But the department has refused to accept Boeing's solution because of ongoing technical glitches.

"I am not going to buy something with U.S. government money unless I'm satisfied it works in the real world," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told lawmakers during a hearing Wednesday. "And if it can't be made to work, I'm prepared to go and find something that will be made to work, although I'll obviously be disappointed."

Boeing's initial contract is for $20 million.

The United States has about 6,000 miles of border, and a GAO report this week estimated that only 392 miles -- or 6.5 percent -- was under effective control as of this past March. Chertoff said individual components of Boeing's system worked well but the system integration was not satisfactory. He said the department has had a series of "frank and candid conversations" with Boeing officials.

"We said, if this is not going to work, if it's too complicated, we're prepared to go back to the drawing board and do something simpler," Chertoff said. "And they assured us that, in fact, it's not too complicated; this is all proven technology."

Chertoff said the department hopes to begin acceptance testing of the system "in about a month." In separate testimony before a Senate committee Thursday, Homeland Security Undersecretary for Management Paul Schneider said it will take "four to nine weeks" for Boeing to resolve the problems.

Chertoff also said Boeing "retooled their team on the ground and replaced some of the managers."

Boeing would not comment on statements made by Chertoff, and deferred all questions regarding the program's delays to the department.

A company spokeswoman confirmed, however, that the program transitioned to a new management team Aug. 1, including a new program manager. She said the transition was planned, and is part of Boeing's normal business procedures. She said the new team is part of a larger organization that can tap more engineers and experts across Boeing.

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