September 12, 2008

Report questions delay of high-tech border surveillance

By Dave Hendricks
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON - Poor management and technical glitches at a high-tech border security project in Arizona have delayed the rollout of new monitoring equipment across the U.S.-Mexico border, congressional investigators reported Tuesday.

The findings are the latest in a series of setbacks for the Department of Homeland Security. Its attempt to secure the porous southwestern border has been fraught with legal challenges and cost overruns. Earlier this year, the department bumped back its deadline for installing high-tech surveillance equipment along the entire border from 2008 to 2011.

The first step in that plan, installing camera towers and sensors to monitor parts of the Texas and Arizona border region, was delayed until at least 2009 after a trial run along a 28-mile stretch near Sasabe, Ariz., revealed problems.

In the Rio Grande Valley, less powerful camera towers monitor areas near Harlingen and Brownsville, said Dan Doty, a U.S. Border Patrol spokesman. The region has also added about 500 agents since 2005.

“We’re working towards a proper mixture of technology, manpower and infrastructure,” Doty said.

Federal investigators also found that Homeland Security officials hadn’t carefully plan-ned how the network would be developed or what it would do. A loosely worded contract with Boeing makes it difficult to assess whether the department got what it paid for, said Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice for the Government Accountability Office.

“At least as far as expectations go, it didn’t meet expectations,” Stana said.

The department awarded Boeing $933 million in contracts for the surveillance network over two years.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., chastised Homeland Security officials for poor communication with the committee.

“Where do you really think we are?” she asked, going on to question whether spending millions on new technology is more cost-effective than simply hiring more agents.

Homeland Security officials stressed the network is part of a wider plan for border security that includes increasing the number of border patrol agents and building 670 miles of border fencing by the end of 2008.

“It was never meant to give us full operational capability,” said Jayson P. Ahern, deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Meanwhile, the border fence has also run into trouble. The cost of building a mile of fence to keep pedestrians out has nearly doubled, from $4 million per mile to $7.5 million. Costs for vehicle barriers have also increased, from $2 million per mile to $2.8 million. Homeland security officials blamed the rising cost of fuel and construction equipment for the dramatic increases.

Investigators also raised concerns that the department hasn’t estimated maintenance costs for the fence.

The department has constructed 341 miles of fencing so far this year.

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