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‘Virtual fence’ still stands: Government extends SBInet contract

Marketplace Staff Nov 17, 2010

By David Gura
11/16/2010 at 11:00 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will extend Boeing’s contract for SBInet, a component of the agency’s multi-billion dollar Secure Border Initiative, for 30 days, a source familiar with the agreement tells American Public Media’s “Marketplace.”

The contract, which was scheduled to expire tomorrow, is now effective through December 18.

In 2006, the government awarded Boeing a three-year contract, with the potential for three one-year extensions. Last month, it decided to renew the contract for only 30 days, which prompted renewed speculation about the program’s future.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered an internal reassessment of SBInet in January, following congressional criticism and several unfavorable Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports.

In 2006, Napolitano’s predecessor, Michael Chertoff, promised SBInet would “integrate the latest technology and infrastructure to interdict illegal immigration and stop threats attempting to cross borders.” Since then, it has been beset with technical problems and delays.

Randolph “Randy” Hite oversaw the most-recent GAO report, “Secure Border Initiative: DHS Needs to Strengthen Management and Oversight of Its Prime Contractor,” which was published in October.

He says that, from the get go, DHS and Boeing failed to answer some important questions:

What is SBInet to be? What is it to do? What kind of capabilities is it to have? When or what capabilities are to be delivered? At what cost will these capabilities be delivered? And what mission value will we get from these capabilities?

As the project fell behind schedule, and costs escalated – to more than $1 billion, its scale got smaller and smaller. Hite calls SBInet “the incredible shrinking program.”

“Problems are going to build on other problems, and it’s just going to get worse and worse,” he says.

Initial plans called for SBInet to be implemented along the U.S.-Mexico and the U.S.-Canada borders. Four years later, SBInet covers only a fraction of that area: two locations within one sector of the 1,989-mile southwestern border, or roughly 53 miles in total.

Jayson P. Ahern was deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection from 2007 until 2009. Now he works in the private sector, as a principal at the Chertoff Group, a Washington-based security and risk management advisory firm.

According to Ahern, some SBInet equipment didn’t meet expectations, and the terrain along the U.S.-Mexico border, which includes urban areas, deserts and mountains, posed unforeseen problems.

“You have lack of communications in some of those areas,” he says. “So, being able to take some of this information, and remote it to a command center, is a tough, tough challenge for any contractor to do.”

The GAO recommended DHS review and revise SBInet. In March, Napolitano froze some of the program’s budget and redirected $35 million in funds to pay for truck-mounted cameras and radar.

Boeing referred an interview request to DHS, and issued this statement:

Boeing has worked closely with Customs and Border Protection to deliver capabilities that are in the hands of Border Patrol agents right now, providing them greater safety, situational awareness and resource effectiveness than ever before. Boeing stands behind its work on the SBInet system as a reliable, effective border security tool.

In a separate statement, Matt Chandler, a DHS spokesman, said the Department

is currently reviewing the independent, quantitative, science-based reassessment of the SBInet program. A way forward on the future of SBInet is expected shortly and will be fully briefed to Congress when ready.

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