Integrated Fixed Towers, The Waste Continues

April 2, 2014

Since 1997, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to implement a “virtual fence” across the Southwest border. Billions of dollars have been wasted on projects that have been scrapped or put on hold. Now, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is pushing forward with the next iteration of the virtual fence. At a time when the entire federal government, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is counting pennies, is it wise to invest more money in a project with a track record that is ambiguous at best? What’s different this time?

Background

The Office of Border Patrol (BP), a department within CBP, is the primary federal law enforcement organization responsible for detecting and preventing undocumented immigrants, terrorists, and contraband from entering the United States. In carrying out its mission, BP relies heavily on technology. For the past seventeen years, DHS (and previously the Immigration and Naturalization Service) has been attempting to implement new technologies to secure the border, including attempts to create a “virtual border fence.”[1] While it has made use of technologies developed by the Department of Defense, DHS has also commissioned its own border-specific equipment, with limited success.[2]

Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS) 

In 1997, the Clinton Administration implemented the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS), which promised to extend the reach of border patrol agents with “digital eyes and ears”, at the border.[3] However, the program fell short of its stated goals. An audit of ISIS uncovered dubious contracting practices, inadequate equipment and misuse of operations support centers.[4] Auditors found “little or no work performed” at one equipment maintenance and operations support center, even though $6.7 million was annually allocated to support the services the center supposedly provided.[5] Further, the government awarded the $43 million contract to International Microwave Corporation (IMC) without the benefit of competitive bidding.[6] According to a 2005 OIG Review, even though ISIS showed issues with delays and inadequate integration into larger BP strategy, it was nevertheless incorporated into the next DHS virtual fence project, the America’s Shield Initiative (ASI).[7]

In 2004 DHS deployed ASI, which utilized components of ISIS in a similar attempt to create a virtual fence using radar, sensors and cameras.[8] However, a Review Board found less than a year later that ASI failed to integrate into the larger border control strategy.[9] A 2006 GAO report found ASI lacked adequate definitions of professional positions; as of August 2005, only 3 of 47 program office positions had defined roles and responsibilities.[10] A separate OIG review also described how the Remote Video Surveillance (RVS) system, which was managed under ISIS and ASI, exhibited numerous problems, included lack of integration between cameras and sensors and cost overruns.[11] Ultimately ASI wound up costing taxpayers $163.6 million dollars before it was cancelled. As of 2005, the government had spent approximately $340 million on ISIS and ASI.[12]

Secure Border Initiative

The following year, in another attempt to implement a virtual border, DHS’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) initiated the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), a multiyear, multibillion-dollar program aimed at securing U.S. borders and reducing illegal immigration.[13] The project was set to be constructed along the entire 2,100-mile Southwest border, and in 2010, CBP deployed SBInet systems (1st block), at a cost of almost $1 billion along 53 miles of Arizona’s 387-mile border with Mexico.[14] CBP intended for the SBInet program to include technologies such as fixed sensor towers, a common operating picture and tactical infrastructure to enhance CBP’s capability to detect, identify, classify, track and respond to illegal breaches at and between land ports of entry.[15]

Like previous programs, the GAO 2011 assessment of SBInet and SBI program concluded that CBP had not developed adequate performance metrics justifying additional funding or demonstrating the effectiveness of virtual fence technologies[16]. Further, the report questioned the cost-effectiveness of SBInet, as well as the ability of the program to perform within its allocated budget and planned timeline.[17] So after five years and nearly 1 billion dollars, SBInet only covered 2.5% of the total border—a mere fifty-three miles.[18] Then Secretary of DHS Janet Napolitano, in January of 2011, issued a directive to CBP to scrap the program — cancel any further procurement of SBInet systems — and use existing technology to create a cost effective alternative.[19]

Integrated Fixed Towers 

In 2011, while everyone thought that SBI and SBInet and its programs were dead, CBP developed the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan (the Plan). The Plan, funded at $242 million for fiscal year 2012, and with a 10-year life-cycle cost estimate of $1.5 billion, would implement Integrated Fixed Towers (IFTs), Remote Video Surveillance Systems and Mobile Surveillance Capability along the remainder of the Arizona border. Unlike SBI, the Plan’s use of IFTs would be tailored specifically to individual regions along the border, and not integrated in a “one size fits all” solution to border surveillance.[20] Responding to other criticisms, a DHS report stresses the Plan would utilize competitive awarding of contracts and cost-effective procurement of equipment.[21]

However, similarly to their previous analyses of virtual fence programs, GAO concluded in a 2011 report that CBP’s Plan does not have a robust cost estimate — one that includes a level of confidence and quantifies the impact of risk[22] — and recommends that CBP document the analysis justifying the technologies proposed in the Plan, determine its mission benefits, conduct a post-implementation review of SBInet and determine a more robust life-cycle cost estimate for the Plan.[23]

In 2012 CBP issued a solicitation for contractors to implement the Integrated Fixed Towers (IFTs) project. Now, DHS reports that it has developed plans for IFTs that will cost only $750 million for the rest of the Arizona border (323 miles), by capitalizing on existing technology and using competitive bidding.[24] To that end, in February of this year CBP award a $145 million contract for IFTs along the Southwest border.[25] CBP stresses the helpfulness of IFTs in aiding Border Patrol agents and enforcing border security more generally. However, the GAO report details several issues that sound extremely familiar to anyone following the “virtual fence” saga over the past decade. Lack of integration into larger border control strategy, failure to effectively evaluate maintenance and environmental costs and inadequate performance metrics continue to be problems that GAO finds in the DHS virtual fence program.[26]

The latest GAO report, issued in March 2014, is again critical of CBP for not developing an Integrated Master Schedule (IMS), which would allow evaluation of the utility and effectiveness of the many different aspects of the Plan.[27] GAO also urges CBP to revise its IFT test plan to better account for environmental factors and durability of equipment, as well as cost of maintenance.[28] While CBP plans on testing IFTs according to mission contributions, it currently doesn’t consider environmental variability and equipment effectiveness. Both recommendations for an IMS and revised IFT test plan were rejected by DHS. DHS did concur with four other recommendations, including better management of scheduling and cost estimates.[29]

Conclusion

After 17 years and over 1 billion dollars spent unsuccessfully trying to create a “virtual fence” on the southern border, CBP is proceeding to spend hundreds of millions more in yet another attempt. This latest effort has already generated criticism from the government’s watchdog agency, echoing its critique of previous efforts. Perhaps instead of throwing yet more money at the problem, CBP should reevaluate its quest for the virtual fence. A virtual fence will likely never be effective as long as real reforms to a broken immigration system elude our policy makers.

[1] G. W. Schulz. “CIR obtains report describing past border surveillance program” The Center for Investigative Reporting, May 24, 2010. Available at http://cironline.org/blog/post/cir-obtains-report-describing-past-border-surveillance-program-715.

[2] Department of Homeland Security. “Report on the Assessment of the Secure Border Initiative-Network (SBInet) Program” 2011. Available at http://www.globalexchange.org/sites/default/files/DHS_Report.pdf

[3] Id.

[4] G. W. Schulz. “CIR obtains report describing past border surveillance program” The Center for Investigative Reporting, May 24, 2010. See note 1 above.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General. “A Review of Remote Surveillance Technology Along U.S. Land Borders.” December, 2005. p. 1. Available at http://www.oig.dhs.gov/assets/Mgmt/OIG_06-15_Dec05.pdf

[8] United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Committees. “Border Security: Key Unresolved Issues Justify Reevaluation of Border Surveillance Technology Program. February, 2006. p. 7-8. Available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/250/249053.pdf

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General. “A Review of Remote Surveillance Technology Along U.S. Land Borders.” December, 2005. p. 1. See note 7 above.

[12] Id.

[13] United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Committees. “Arizona Border Surveillance Technology: More Information on Plans and Costs is Needed before Proceeding.” November, 2011. p. 2. Available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/590/586102.pdf.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Committees. “Arizona Border Surveillance Technology: More Information on Plans and Costs is Needed before Proceeding.” November, 2011. p. 28. See note 1 above.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Department of Homeland Security. “Report on the Assessment of the Secure Border Initiative-Network (SBInet) Program” 2011. p. 7-9. Available at http://www.globalexchange.org/sites/default/files/DHS_Report.pdf

[20] United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Committees. “Arizona Border Surveillance Technology: More Information on Plans and Costs is Needed before Proceeding.” November, 2011. p. 2. Available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/661570.pdf

[21] Department of Homeland Security. “Report on the Assessment of the Secure Border Initiative-Network (SBInet) Program” 2011. p. 7-9. See note 19 above.

[22] United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Committees. “Arizona Border Surveillance Technology: More Information on Plans and Costs is Needed before Proceeding.” November, 2011. p. 20-23. See note 20 above.

[23] Id.

[24] Department of Homeland Security. “Report on the Assessment of the Secure Border Initiative-Network (SBInet) Program” 2011. p. 2. Available at http://www.globalexchange.org/sites/default/files/DHS_Report.pdf.

[25] Homeland Security News Wire, “CBP Awards $145 million Border Towers Contract to Elbit” March 6, 2014 available at http://www.homelandsecuritynewswire.com/dr20140306-cbp-awards-145-million-border-towers-contract-to-elbit

[26] United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Committees. “Arizona Border Surveillance Technology: More Information on Plans and Costs is Needed before Proceeding.” November, 2011. p. 29. Available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/590/586102.pdf

[27] United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters. “Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan: Additional Actions Needed to Strengthen Management and Assess Effectiveness.” March, 2014. p. 20. Available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/661297.pdf

[28] Id.

[29] Id.