DHS Special Report | From gizmos to tactical infrastructure
SBInet is latest attempt to take control of the border
- By Rob Thormeyer
- Jun 20, 2006
Border security has been a major problem for the government since long before Congress and President Bush created the Homeland Security Department. The problem hasn't gone away.
From the recent America's Shield Initiative'dismissed by DHS leadership as technological 'gizmos''to consistent problems with the existing Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS), the government has yet to find an effective and comprehensive means of securing the borders.
But DHS officials are convinced that this time, the Secure Border Initiative-Net program will succeed where past efforts have fallen woefully short.
SBInet's promise is in its broader view of border security, officials say'the program is not just about monitoring who and what is coming across the borders, but ensuring that the Border Patrol has the right tools to intercept the interlopers and take appropriate law-enforcement action.
'SBInet, besides technology'clearly that will be a key driver'is the tactical infrastructure that addresses the ability to respond,' said Lee Bargerhuff, SBInet interim program director at Customs and Border Protection.
But some experts are concerned that SBInet, bigger and broader than America's Shield, may be too open-ended and could crash under its heightened expectations.
'You're talking about a complex system, and complex systems have proven to be very difficult to implement,' said Jim Dempsey, policy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology of Washington.
The procurement itself is huge'estimated by market research firm Input of Reston, Va., to be more than $2 billion'and the solicitation DHS released in January was wide-ranging, lacking specifics that some experts believe a program of this magnitude needs.
'SBInet represents the most wide-scale initiative to date to secure the almost 6,000 miles of open national border, yet most details on SBInet are somewhat unclear,' Input's James Krouse, director of market analysis, said in report last month.
SBInet, unveiled in late January, will try to stabilize, or at least better control, the influx of illegal and undocumented people coming in across the borders.
If it succeeds where other efforts failed'namely, by relaying relevant surveillance information that lets a beefed-up Border Patrol take appropriate law enforcement action'Homeland Security officials believe that SBInet, as part of the broader Secure Border Initiative, will dramatically reshape the nation's border security.
'The reason there's great expectation for success is, one, the overall, unprecedented will to see this thing through,' said Bargerhuff. 'That's from the public, the White House, the department and definitely here in this office. There's an exceptional level of commitment to do the hard work it's going to take to see this brought into reality.'
Bids for the broad SBInet solicitation came in at the end of May. Bidders include Raytheon Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., Ericsson Inc. and Northrop Grumman Corp. DHS hopes to make an award by Sept. 30.
Past failures at securing the border'from the America's Shield Initiative to long-running problems with ISIS'a surveillance program consisting of more than 200 cameras along U.S. borders'have made skeptics out of many border patrol officials on the ground.
'SBInet'it's been tried and it's failed,' said former patrol officer Rich Pierce, now executive vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents Border Patrol agents. 'They're not going to try anything new. ... The people in the field know it's not going to work.'
But SBInet executives are aware of the history and say that, this time, they will get it right.Full attention
For one, the program has the attention and focus of the administration, from President Bush to top leadership at DHS, including secretary Michael Chertoff.
'This has more attention at the top of DHS than I've seen with any other border security program,' said Lynn Ann Casey, chief executive officer of homeland security consulting firm Arc Aspicio LLC of Arlington, Va. 'Chertoff is personally paying attention to this on a regular basis.'
'These guys seem to be managing [SBInet] better than the old America's Shield program,' said Jim Lewis, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies of Washington. 'It looks like they thought about the money more and they seem to have more of an integrated vision of how it works.'
Some experts say SBInet has replaced the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program as DHS' darling program. Whereas U.S. Visit was seen as former secretary Tom Ridge's baby, experts say Chertoff has made SBInet one of his highest priorities.
In fact, industry executives said the SBI management team'which includes program manager Greg Giddens, who oversaw major initiatives at the Coast Guard'fully understands the task ahead and has the expertise and experience to see it through. Bargerhuff, in his capacity as SBInet interim program director at CBP, reports to Giddens.
'[Giddens] has a proven ability to understand what it takes to make a program successful,' said Gene Blackwell, vice president at Raytheon's Rapid Initiative Group.
These managers are taking a holistic view of border security as well, something previous efforts did not do.
While programs like America's Shield were focused heavily on the technology side, Bargerhuff said SBInet will roll into the broader Secure Border Initiative by providing a vital communications link between the surveillance equipment and border patrol officers on the ground.
'ASI was a technology-only initiative,' he said. 'It never was intended to secure the border. It was intended to enhance the border patrol's ability to detect, classify and identify, but it really didn't address the response issues ... SBInet is taking it a step further in that way, with the tactical infrastructure.'
In particular, SBInet will take the surveillance data, whether from a stationary camera, sensor or unmanned aerial vehicle, classify its threat level and give the border patrol officials enough information to determine if they need to intervene.
'We've defined success as that ability to detect, to identify what it is the detection actually is,' he said. 'Is that an animal? Is it weather? Is it a human being? And if it's a human being, classify it as to its threat. The response is then the next category'how can we best respond to it with the whole variety of issues in play there.'
Aside from technology, a big push to reinvigorate the Border Patrol is a key aspect of the program, Bargerhuff said.
But these additional agents will continue to be overmatched if they do not have the communications backbone that lets them analyze risks and determine their next steps, observers said.
'Just deploying the stuff won't be a magic cure,' said CSIS' Lewis. 'It's going to take a while for this stuff to work.'
And Congress may not have the patience'nor the money'SBInet needs to succeed.
In the fiscal year 2007 Homeland Security appropriations bill, House lawmakers provided SBI $3.98 billion'but only after the Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee signs off on the procurement plan.
'Unless the department can show us exactly what we're buying, we won't fund it,' subcommittee chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) said on the House floor in late May.
Rogers noted that spending on border security since 1995 has 'quadrupled from $5.1 billion to over $17.9 billion,' and the number of agents has jumped from 5,000 to 12,319.
'However, during this same period, the number of illegal immigrants has jumped from 5 million to an estimated 12 million,' Rogers said. 'The policy of more money and no results is no longer in effect. We will not fund programs with false expectations.'
Rogers' media office did not return repeated calls for comment.
Bargerhuff could not talk specifically on Rogers' comments but said the agency will work closely with Congress.
'Obviously the Congress' role i
n this is clear and we can't expect to operate in a vacuum,' he said. 'We're not going to have a bake sale to pay for this thing, so it's going to be a very open dialog with the legislators, for sure.'
And the winning contractor also will play a key role in securing Congress' support, industry executives said.
'SBInet is a national priority, and funding is going to have to be rejustified,' said Bruce Walker, vice president of homeland security and strategy planning at Northrop Grumman. 'We're going to have to prove progress to Congress. Part of the role of the contractor is making the case to Congress.'
If the money is not there, SBInet likely will find itself on the scrap heap alongside with its predecessors, observers said.