Homeland Security's 'virtual' border fence ends up, well, nonexistent

The Government Accountability Office told Congress today that the virtual fence along the U.S.-Mexico border is inoperable, and the DHS is abandoning its original plans for it.

Stephanie Condon
Stephanie Condon Staff writer, CBSNews.com
Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.
3 min read

WASHINGTON--The Department of Homeland Security's "virtual fence" along the U.S.-Mexico border is inoperable in the one location it has been deployed, and plans to replicate the technology along the rest of the border have been completely changed or abandoned, government auditors told Congress on Wednesday.

As part of the DHS Secure Border Initiative established in 2005, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is responsible for deploying SBInet, a border protection system that utilizes a mix of surveillance and communication technologies--such as radars, sensors, and cameras--along with traditional fencing. In February, the deployment of SBInet was postponed from the end of 2008 to 2011.

The news wasn't much better today. The Government Accountability Office reviewed the SBInet program from March to September of this year and testified about its findings in a hearing in front of the House Committee on Homeland Security on Wednesday.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

"Are we making progress?" said Randolph Hite, director of IT architecture and systems issues for the GAO. "The answer is, we don't know."

"I've never seen anything that answers that question of will the benefits exceed the cost," Hite said.

The CBP has awarded Boeing, the main contractor for the SBInet program, $933.3 million in projects so far. The DHS has requested $75 million from Congress for operations and maintenance of what's described as "tactical" infrastructure in place for 2009.

When the GAO visited in June the site of Project 28, a 28-mile strip of land at which a prototype for SBInet is under use by the border patrol, the system was hardly functioning, said Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice for the GAO.

"It took us 45 minutes just to get the system up and running," he said.

Additionally, radars were thrown off, camera range was limited, and the ability to classify items under surveillance was limited, Stana said. He said the prototype "did not meet expectations," but that it was hard to hold the contractors accountable because any expectations in place were "loosely worded."

Stana said that while Project 28 was intended as a model for security along the rest of the border, the project has essentially been scrapped, and the CBP will use different technologies.

"The cameras, the radars, everything will change," he said after the hearing.

Stana said in his prepared statement to Congress that "further delays of SBInet technology deployments may hinder the Border Patrol's efforts to secure the border."

Ralph Basham, commissioner of the CBP, defended his agency's work. He said the CBP is adjusting to unforeseen costs and setbacks and has adopted seven of the eight recommendations made by the GAO in its report of the program, the final version of which will be released on September 22.

"We did not and will not rush to deploy something that is not ready," he said. "Our priority is get it right."

He added, "Accomplishments don't brandish as much attention as the failures."

The congressmen present expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of progress.

"This is a joke--but it's not funny," Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey said before the hearing was adjourned (apparently because of a scheduling conflict with a memorial service) until next week.