New York Times
March 16, 2010
By Randal C. Archibold
Citing a plague of “cost overruns and missed deadlines,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that she would cut millions of dollars intended for a high-tech “virtual fence” along the Mexican border that has produced little more than headaches for the federal government.
Ms. Napolitano said her department would divert about $50 million in federal stimulus money intended for the project to other technological needs on the border, including laptops, radios, thermal-imaging devices and cameras requested by border guards.
In addition, she said, no money will be spent on expanding the project beyond two areas in Arizona where it is being tested until the department completes a reassessment she ordered in January.
Ms. Napolitano’s announcement came two days before a scheduled Congressional hearing on the program. The House Homeland Security Committee is expected to receive the latest in a string of Government Accountability Office reports calling the program into question. That new report says tests designed to evaluate the system are flawed and mismanaged.
Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and chairman of the committee, questioned whether it was time to pull the plug entirely.
“We still need to see whether or not this virtual fence that was promised by the department and its contractor Boeing is something that is feasible,” he said Tuesday. “Or is it just a several-hundred-million-dollar waste of taxpayer money?”
The virtual fence is part of a multiyear, multibillion-dollar effort known as the Secure Border Initiative that was announced with fanfare by the Bush administration in November 2005. Besides increasing the number of guards and expanding a border wall, it promised a sophisticated system of cameras, sensors and radar that would zero in on people crossing the border with new speed and clarity and quickly guide agents to them.
By now, according to the original timeline, the system was supposed to be working along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. But shortly after Boeing was awarded the contract, red flags went up over its lack of oversight and potential for cost overruns.
Boeing said in a statement on Tuesday that it was “fully committed to delivering border-security technology that successfully assists” the department, but it declined to answer questions about its handling of the project. About $1.1 billion has been spent on the virtual fence, with little to show for it beyond the two testing sites in the Arizona desert and a series of embarrassments, including radar that could not function properly in the rain and wind-blown trees mistaken for border crossers.
Those first, limited segments of the fence are now expected to be delivered to the government early next year, and the Government Accountability Office has estimated that it would take several years to cover the entire border with equivalent technology.
The department has said it was revamping the system to address the problems, though the Obama administration had already scaled back financing for it, to a request of $574 million for the fiscal year that begins in October from the current $800 million Congress has authorized.
The accountability office has previously said Boeing pushed forward with designing the system without consulting with the Border Patrol, whose agents would be the primary users.
It has released 14 critical reports that, taken together, point to a system that “was over-promised and under-delivered,” said Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice issues for the office.
The office’s latest report, to be released Thursday, says the department and Boeing have not designed tests well enough to assess the program. In some cases, the tests appeared designed to achieve positive results instead of evaluate the system.