Friday, September 18, 2009

House members raise questions about border security project

Dallas Morning News
September 18, 2009
by Marjorie Korn

WASHINGTON – The task of securing the U.S.-Mexico border by high-tech means is behind schedule and plagued by chronic technology problems, lawmakers were told Thursday, prompting questions about how much more time and money they're willing to invest in the current plan.

The Secure Border Initiative, run by the Department of Homeland Security, aims to use a network of surveillance equipment – along with fencing, roads and lighting – to monitor for illegal immigrants and contraband crossing the border.

Supporters told a House homeland security subcommittee that the program has made strides, while critics question how glitches will be fixed and whether the final product will be worth the price tag.

The issue was underscored last week when Gov. Rick Perry called for more Texas Rangers to help curtail violence along the Mexican border. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat who sits on the subcommittee, said if the Homeland Security program continues to be ineffective, more states may have to undertake what is chiefly a federal burden.

"If we don't do our work correctly, you're going to have governors saying 'We have to take work into our hands,' " Cuellar said.

David Aguilar, the nation's top Border Patrol official, defended the system, saying much has been learned from mistakes and the initiative is on the road to effectiveness.

"Although we know that the last three years of SBInet have been frustrating and, at times, discouraging for all involved, we believe we are on a path towards improvement," Aguilar said.
A report from the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office, which studies federal policies at Congress' request, warned that the effectiveness of the multibillion-dollar program hasn't been fully tested and the Boeing Co., whose federal contract for the surveillance portion of the initiative is close to expiring, hasn't worked out technical kinks that have long plagued the system.

Richard Stana of the accountability office said that Boeing's technology hasn't sufficiently progressed. For instance, new cameras being tested still register false readings on windy days. And a slew of missed deadlines for making the system fully operational has him questioning if the 2017 deadline will be met and what the final investment will be.

"Nobody knows what it's going to look like, so how would they know what it's going to cost?" Stana said.

Congress has spent $3.7 billion on the initiative since 2005, and Stana's report recommends that the Border Patrol do a cost-benefit analysis.

"We have yet to see whether or not this fencing has increased border security and justified its costs," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., who chairs the subcommittee.

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