Critical tests to decide future of DHS's virtual fence

Friday - 6/18/2010, 6:49am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Over the next six months, the Customs and Border Protection directorate will have a better idea of how well the virtual fence works.

CBP is closely watching a series of technology implementations along the southwest border under the Secure Border Initiative-Net (SBINet).

Mark Borkowski, the executive director of SBINet program executive office at CBP, says the performance of the systems at sites in Tucson and Ajo, Ariz., will go a long way to deciding how the Homeland Security Department moves forward with the much-troubled program.

"We need to become convinced that the program we've designed is even viable," says Borkowski during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing Thursday. "[W] e need to become convinced that even if it is viable, that it's the right way to spend money, that we are getting value for that money."

DHS secretary Janet Napolitano suspended the $6-to-$8 billion program in January to reassess whether to continue with the program. DHS ordered its contractor Boeing to stop work on all but the two implementations in Arizona until further notice because of ongoing problems with the technology, program management and inadequate oversight.

"After more than four years and approximately $1.3 billion, we need to get on the same page about what a technology solution at the border looks like," says Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism. "[A] s the Government Accountability Office's findings indicate, the promises made at the start of the program remain unfulfilled as the expected scope and capabilities of SBINet have continued to shrink over the last few years."

Cuellar says the number of system requirements dropped by 32 percent over the last 15 months and the initial deployment area will cover no more than 387 miles of the southwest border instead of the 655 miles initially proposed by DHS and Boeing.

This was the second hearing since May on the future of the virtual fence. Senate and House lawmakers have said they are almost out of patience with the program and are encouraging DHS to pull the plug.

DHS is non-committal about whether the program will continue. Borkowski says Napolitano has not set a hard deadline to make a decision on whether to move forward with SBINet. He says, however, the work this summer will help influence the final decision.

Borkowski says he doesn't expect to implement SBINet technologies across the entire border like once imagined.

Still, Tucson 1 and Ajo 1 will provide quantitative results of what the technology does and what it costs to produce in a reoccurring way.

"We expect to have the engineering test results for Tucson 1 by September and we are still on schedule for that, and we expect to have engineering test results for Ajo 1 by the end of the calendar year and we are still on schedule for that," he says. "The other part of the assessment is the question of even if it works, is it worth it? There are other technologies so I can have less capabilities at less dollars or more capabilities at more dollars. The question is do I get value for more dollars?"

He says these assessments will be done in phases. The first phase should provide data by the end of June based on the performance of the technology in Arizona.

"That is designed to compare SBINet block 1to other technology options in a very quantitative, science-based way so we can make more intelligent decisions about where it makes sense to spend money on this system," Borkowski says. "That quantitative analysis depending how that looks will continue into other areas of the border before we make any commitments to those areas of the border."

DHS recently completed another assessment about how to spend the $50 million it received for SBINet from the Recovery Act.

Borkowski says CBP will not use the money on the program, but instead spend it on other technologies that already are showing value, such as mobile surveillance systems, sensors for aircraft and pursuit cameras at the ports.

He adds that CBP expects to start using those technologies in the coming months.

Overall, Borkowski says SBINet is on the path toward success. He says DHS has heeded much of GAO's advice and is seeing improvements.

"We've tried to address the ones that we thought are most important and there's more to go so there's risk there, but we think we've got the big ones," he says. "We think we've got a more realistic schedule. We think we've got a more realistic plan."