Senate committee chairman suggests killing Boeing's virtual fence

Sen. Joe Lieberman questions the future of the SBInet virtual fence system is a failure.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has said the Homeland Security Department’s virtual fence electronic surveillance project at the border of the United States and Mexico is a failure and and suggested it might be scrapped.

“By any measure, SBInet [the Secure Border Initiative Network] has been a failure – a classic example of a program that was grossly oversold and has badly underdelivered,” Lieberman said after his committee held a hearing on border security April 20. “This program needs to be shaken up. It should be brought to the point where it works or we should scrap it.”

Committee Member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, “Hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money so far has been wasted. There has been a lack of oversight and a lack of accountability. The virtual fence has been a complete failure.“

About $700 million has been spent since 2006 on the SBInet system composed of cameras, radars and sensors and linked to a central communications center. A 28-mile prototype was finished in Arizona in 2008 and a 53-mile permanent system is under construction at the border of Arizona and Mexico by contractor Boeing Co. The system is projected to cost $7 billion for the entire southwestern border.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in January started a reassessment of project. In March, DHS officials redirected $50 million in SBInet funding toward other border technology projects.

Lieberman also said that the DHS agency "U.S. Customs and Border Protection seems to have effectively told Boeing – the contractor – ‘Go ahead and do what you can do as quickly as you can.’ ”

“Without clear goals and expectations, both CBP and Boeing underestimated the complexity of building the system. And the Border Patrol agents themselves – the people who would be implementing and relying on the system every day – were not consulted on what their actual needs were,” Lieberman said. “I am also troubled that the program office responsible for SBInet is heavily dependent on contractors, weakening CBP's own organic capability to manage the program and ensure capability.”

Also, Lieberman objected to the award of a single contract to Boeing. That means that CBP does not get the benefit of competition for individual tasks undertaken for the SBInet program.

CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin agreed at the hearing that the "original conception [of SBInet] has not been delivered upon." He said the agency has developed a robust management program for Block I of SBInet, which is the 53 miles being deployed.

“We are also taking steps to improve our competence in the management of complex acquisition programs,” Bersin said. “We have redesigned our SBI organization to develop and retain skilled government personnel in the disciplines that are key to successful program management. We are also strengthening our oversight and management of contractor activities and ensuring that requirements are clearly and concisely communicated.“

After Napolitano’s analysis is completed, if it suggests that alternative technology options represent the best balance of capability and cost effectiveness for border security, resources will be redirected from SBInet to those other options, Bersin said.