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WASHINGTON, Jan 19 2011 (IPS) - One billion dollars and just over four years after Boeing won a contract to build a “virtual fence” on the Arizona-Mexico border, the high-tech project was canceled last week by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) amid widespread recognition that it has been a failure.
The Secure Border Initiative Network (also known as SBInet) was created by the administration of George W. Bush in November 2005 to track down undocumented migrants crossing the 3,200-kilometre land border between the U.S. and Mexico. Estimates of the number of people that make it across range from 400,000 to one million a year, many of whom hike miles of uncharted northbound trails and roads through steep ravines and hills of the desert to evade border patrols.
Some more accessible areas, near cities like Nogales and Tijuana, have physical fencing but these are often breached by migrants who dig under or knock down the barriers. SBInet was intended to showcase a more high-tech approach in the Arizona desert that, if successful, would have been extended throughout the border region.
“We’re asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business. We’re asking you. We’re inviting you to tell us how to run our organisation,” Michael Jackson, then deputy director of Homeland Security, told more than 400 military contractors and homeland security industrialists at a government-sponsored “Industry Day” on Jan. 25, 2006.
Jackson, a former Lockheed Martin vice-president, added: “This is an invitation to be a little bit, a little bit aggressive and thinking as if you owned and you were partners with the CBP (Customs and Border Patrol).”
In September 2006, Boeing won the SBINet contract, defeating four other major bidders. Over the last four years, Boeing installed 400 unattended ground sensors, 15 sensor towers and 13 communications towers along an 85-kilometre stretch of the border in the areas of Ajo and Tucson.
The company came in for scathing criticism at Congressional hearings. Boeing vice president and SBInet programme manager Jerry McElwee was confronted by Congressman William Lacy Clay at an oversight hearing for information about the ballooning costs and the extension of the contract period.
“You bid on these contracts and then you come back and say, ‘Oh we need more time. It costs more than twice as much.’ Are you gaming the taxpayers here? Or gaming DHS?” the Missouri Democrat asked.
“The last time I saw this type of model for managing a project was ‘the Big Dig’ in Boston,” Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Steven Lynch referring to a highway rerouting mega project that included a 5.6-kilometre-long tunnel under Boston.
“This is exactly what they did. They fused the oversight function with the engineering and construction function,” Lynch said. “Everybody was in the same tent. Nobody was watching out for the owner, who in this case is the U.S. taxpayer. This is a terrible model and I see a lot of it. Generally when this model is in place, we see colossal failures and huge cost overruns.”
Blame for the failure has also been directed at the government. A Government Accountability Office report in 2008 stated that “requirements have not been effectively defined and managed and management has not been effective” noting that “important aspects of SBInet remain ambiguous and in a continued state of flux, making it unclear and uncertain what technology capabilities will be delivered and when, where, and how they will be delivered.”
Government officials have finally acknowledged that the massive high-tech project has been an abject failure, according to a recent assessment commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security, which concluded: “SBInet has had continued and repeated technical problems, cost overruns and schedule delays, raising serious questions about the system’s ability to meet the needs for technology along the border.”
The Barack Obama administration committed early to canceling failed projects. Vivek Kundra, the U.S. chief information officer, was tasked with conducting high-level assessments of several dozen major infrastructure projects with an eye to stop throwing good money after bad.
“We know what needs to be done, but there are some structural barriers that have to be addressed,” Kundra said last December after examining a number of projects, including SBInet. “We’re trying to move away from huge massive contracts to a model where you will really see true value.”
Last week, SBInet became the latest mega-project to be officially canceled and replaced with simpler and smaller contracts. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano says that the government will now use existing technology, including mobile surveillance systems, unmanned aircraft systems, thermal imaging devices and tower-based remote video surveillance systems. All told, she expects DHS to spend less than 750 million dollars to cover the remaining 517 kilometres of the Arizona border.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to meet our border technology needs, and this new strategy is tailored to the unique needs of each border region, providing faster deployment of technology, better coverage, and a more effective balance between cost and capability,” Napolitano said after announcing the SBInet cancelation last week.
Boeing has tried to put a positive spin on the news. “DHS has made a decision to continue using technology in border security, and we appreciate that they recognize the value of the integrated fixed towers Boeing has built, tested, and delivered so far,” the company said in a statement. “We are proud of the accomplishments of our team and of the unprecedented capabilities delivered in the last year that provide Border Patrol agents increased safety, situational awareness, and operational efficiency.”
Yet at the end of the day, many experts note that much of the debate over border fences – physical and virtual – are really more about political perceptions of being tough on immigration rather than actual barriers to undocumented workers. By Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) own estimates, half the country’s undocumented workers enter the United States legally with temporary visas that they then overstay.
*Pratap Chatterjee is a visiting fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC specialising in fraud, waste and abuse in government procurement.
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