Friday, September 19, 2008

GAO: Border-fence woes Homeland Security's fault

Arizona Daily Star
September 19, 2008

WASHINGTON — The Government Accountability Office — the non-partisan investigative arm of Congress — on Thursday blamed mismanagement in the Department of Homeland Security for delays and failures in the construction of the planned 670-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.

There were "some serious gaps" in the DHS approach, the GAO said, citing what it said was the department's failure to specify performance requirements for a high-tech segment of the fence and to implement effective testing.

Randolph Hite, director of information technology architecture and systems issues for the GAO, told the House Homeland Security Committee that the failure to complete the fence was "not a technical issue, it's an acquisition-management issue."

Congress directed the DHS in the 2006 Secure Fence Act to construct the fence by Dec. 31, 2008, as part of a larger effort to combat illegal immigration. The so-called "virtual fence" consists of cameras, sensors and radar along sections of the Mexican border in Texas and Arizona.

Hite said completion of the fence will spill over into the administration that takes office in January.

Richard Stana, director of homeland security for the GAO, said the DHS did not set strict "performance standards" for Project 28, a virtual fence pilot led by the Boeing Co. along a 28-mile stretch of border flanking Sasabe, Ariz.

Project 28 has faced significant technical difficulties and does not meet performance expectations, Stana said.

The DHS has blamed delays in the virtual fence on technical problems and demands by the GAO and the House Homeland Security Committee that the technology be thoroughly tested before being used.

Hite said the new administration should press for the creation of clear goals for the project to ensure the fence's success.

The DHS has said troubles in acquiring land have also slowed the project, although 341 miles of the planned 670 miles of fence have so far been constructed and contracts for the project's entire span have been completed.

"If the property acquisition is not done by the end of this month, all bets are off for finishing by the end of this year," Stana said on Wednesday. "If the goal was to have a contract, they will be in by the end of the year."

The project's physical fence has also faced higher-than-projected material costs, both as a result of changes to the project's initial design and higher concrete and steel costs.

Some committee members voiced frustration with the delay.

"Clearly, we're dealing with B.S.," quipped Rep. Al Green, D-Texas. "I'm not sure that we're getting as much for the B.S. as we are allocating."

When pushed to identify whether the department now possesses "operational control" of the Mexican border, defined as the ability to identify, classify and respond to any threat, Stana noted recent improvements but responded: "We're not at that point yet, and it could be years before we get there."

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