DHS accepts delivery of electronic fence, with caveats

Amid a strong warning from Congress, the Homeland Security Department last week conditionally accepted delivery of the first phase of a controversial electronic border fence from contractor Boeing Co., and awarded the company a $64 million contract to build the next phase.

At a press conference held Dec. 7, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff accepted the delivery of the first phase of the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet), a high-tech surveillance system consisting of radars, cameras and ground sensors connected by a wireless satellite network along a 28-mile section in southern Arizona.

Chertoff said he was "satisfied for now" with the work Boeing has done on the first phase of the contract, known as Project 28. But he added, DHS would continue to be a tough customer, which he said means "if we're not satisfied with something, we're going to tell them [Boeing] we're not satisfied with it.… I told the head of Boeing some time back, 'Look, I'm not, you know, you don't have a lock on this entire border.'"

The day before the press conference, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, sent Chertoff a letter asking him to defer final payment and acceptance of Project 28 until Chertoff was satisfied it would meet the requirements that the Customs and Border Protection bureau had set out when it awarded the $2.5 billion SBInet contract to Boeing last year. The Project 28 task order is worth $20 million.

Thompson has been concerned about Boeing's efforts to fix technical problems with the fence, including systems integration, rain-activating radars and a lag time in displaying video images from field cameras. As a result, Boeing missed the June deadline to turn the first phase of the fence over to the Border Patrol. In September, Chertoff said he would withhold payment to Boeing until the company had worked out the bugs.

But as of last week, Thompson was not convinced Boeing had fixed the bugs or if the fence was worth the investment, saying he was concerned that Project 28 would provide the 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," rather than a fully functional system that met DHS requirements to effectively monitor the border.

A spokesman for Thompson did not return calls asking for comments on DHS' acceptance of Project 28.

Chertoff defended Boeing's tardiness in delivering the system, saying delays are inevitable in any complex system and that DHS now has a functional routine operating for a project announced last year, which he views as "record time."

Chertoff announced that DHS has awarded Boeing a $64 million task order on the SBInet contract to upgrade the so-called Common Operating Picture to display real-time information from the radars, cameras and ground sensors that Boeing has installed on the towers.

But Chertoff left open the option to pursue different technologies to monitor other parts of the border if DHS could find a less sophisticated system to do the job. "We're going to make a judgment on what is in the best interest of the Border Patrol from a cost-effective standpoint," he said. "That way, it's an indefinite contract. It [the SBInet contract with Boeing] doesn't lock us into a permanent thing."

DHS has paid Boeing $16 million of the $20 million total value of the contract and will pay the company another $1 million, and withhold another $1.5 million in reserve, until the Border Patrol operational shakedown is completed and it identifies any potential fixes, said Gregory Giddens, director of the DHS SBI Program Executive Office. The new task order will cover improvements such the reducing the lag between the time sensors pick up images in the field and when those images are displayed on agents' screens in command centers or patrol vehicles, DHS system operators also have asked Boeing to improve the look of icons on the display screens, Giddens said.

Chertoff said Boeing has discounted its work by another $2 million, which Giddens said will be applied to future SBInet work.

The Border Patrol now will take over Project 28 and run it in an operational mode for 45 days. During that time, "we will identify further adjustments or fixes that need to be made," Chertoff said. "Maybe more important, we're going to determine things that we want to add or amend in the system so we can improve its value and make it more of a value add."

Chertoff said he believes Project 28 "adds some value to the Border Patrol mission.… [but] I think it could add more value, and this is the essence of what we call spiral development, which is building a system that's operational, living with it for a little while, and then using that as a way of getting to the next level."

Jay Ahern, the assistant commissioner for the Border Patrol, said the initial operating capability of Project 28 is "not perfect, but it is giving us detection capabilities, which is absolutely critical. It is also giving us the ability to identify what it is that we have detected, and it is bringing those two pieces together. In the past, we could do that only as a stand-alone.… We could detect by ground sensors or we can detect by cameras. Today we detect and we identify at the same time."

Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar said Project 28 has resulted in a "tremendous efficiency increase" for personnel and he views it as "a tremendous force multiplier."

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