Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Vendors flock to border security expo

San Antonio Express News
August 15, 2009
by Lynn Brezosky

EL PASO — As Border Patrol chiefs huddled over maps plotting the border fence, tech types at Raytheon Co. were plotting a system to detect the inevitable tunneling beneath it.

Two years and a good deal of controversy later, almost all of the 670 initial miles of fencing called for by the Bush Administration are up — and Raytheon's Tunnel Detection System is for sale.

So were other private sector innovations at this week's Border Security Conference, an annual event that draws Department of Homeland Security honchos and is underwritten by vendors seeking a piece of the department's $50.5 billion budget.

Products like a “non-lethal anti-personnel weapon” (Raytheon), the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (L-1 Identity Solutions), or the SensorWeb (SAIC) were on display. Other firms at the podium for a 75-minute presentation on “Integrating Technology and Connecting Communities” were Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing and CSC.

And if U.S. Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar, DHS assistant secretary Alan Bersin, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Assistant Secretary John Morton or any of the attending members of Congress or border sheriffs missed the talk, they could stop by the tables for gadget demonstrations.

Business opportunities have exploded since the 9-11 attacks spurred consolidation of 22 agencies into the Department of Homeland Security. The nine government contracts related to homeland security in 1999 had jumped to 3,512 deals by 2003. By 2007, there were 33,890.

In fiscal year 2008, DHS spent more than $14 billion on contracts, spokeswoman Sara Kuban said.

Conferences are part of the business.

“Nothing beats having an expo with some whiz-bang device that will wow the observers into thinking this is a good investment,” said Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union. “I wouldn't say that these kinds of events make the difference between buying or not buying, but I do think they can influence the decision of how much, when and where the new system might fit in.”

The contracting came under fire in a 2006 General Accountability Office report that found the surge in procurement spending in the department's first few years included $34.3 billion in contracts “plagued by waste, abuse or mismanagement.” Most of the criticism centered on mismanagement within DHS itself.

The $67 million contract for Boeing's “virtual fence” became an embarrassment in 2007 when the system of sensors, drones and infrared cameras didn't work.

DHS spokeswoman Kuban emphasized that the problems dated to a previous administration and that DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has pledged widespread efficiency reviews.

Marthena Cowart, spokeswoman for the Project on Government Oversight, said that if agencies follow longstanding ethics rules for attending these conferences, there is nothing illegal about them.

“The bad news,” she said, “is that this is another example of pay to play, where contractors have an opportunity to interface with the federal government and make their case for spending more tax dollars.”

Not that the products don't have merit.

After Hurricanes Ike and Dolly, officials in the stricken areas who months earlier had attended the 2008 Texas Hurricane Conference in Galveston, organized by the Governer's Division of Emergency Management, may have thought wistfully of the air-conditioned Rapid Air Shelter, the water-inflated flood barriers or the debris removal services.

Those devices were busy in the towns that had already contracted for them. Luckily for all, a few truckloads of Heater Meals had been scooped up by the Texas National Guard.

Jeffrey Hathaway retired as a U.S. Coast Guard admiral and found a new career with L-1 Identity Solutions, which currently makes all new U.S. passport cards (a $107 million contract) as well as driver's licenses for 45 states.

At the El Paso conference, he was showing off handheld fingerprint readers and Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE), an identity scanner capable of holding a 35-piece biometric portfolio for 250,000 people.

“I was in the world of counter-narcotics and I always had a problem with identifying people,” Hathaway said. “We would be on the high seas. I could identify the cocaine but not the five people sitting on top of it because any identification had been thrown overboard.”

The HIIDE is now used in lieu of an access card at security posts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Companies expend plenty of resources in the race to think ahead of the government and beat the competition.

In Raytheon's case, it took about $2 million in research and development to test a ground-based sensor array system on a 30-foot deep tunnel in Douglas, Ariz. It now has a proposal pending with an “end user” — the Border Patrol.

The company in April scored a $19 million Defense Department contract to use similar technology to find tunnels and land mines.

“In this case, we said, ‘OK, we know putting these fences along the border, what's gonna happen?'” Raytheon vice president Jerry Robertello said. “We know they're going to be digging more and more tunneling. ... We said, how would we, Raytheon, approach putting a stop to tunneling to solve a real threat?”


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