DHS puts border security on fast track

We have never had a credible plan to enforce the southern border.'

'Michael P. Jackson, DHS

Rick Steele

'Anytime DHS announces a new initiative, I am starting to wonder what is really 'new' about it.'

'Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.)

Contract for ambitious SBI.net initiative to be awarded by Sept. 30

The border is about to be re-engineered.

The Homeland Security Department's SBI.net program is set to roll out advanced technology between ports of entry and limit, if not put a stop to, illegal entrants. Officials plan to upgrade this complex part of the Secure Border Initiative in a scant eight months'a goal they call ambitious and others call hasty.

SBI.net fits into a comprehensive border control plan that already includes the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program. U.S. Visit has rolled out biometric technology at 115 airports, 15 seaports and the secondary inspection areas of 154 land crossing points, and has coordinated dozens of federal databases.

SBI.net will continue the technology rollout to the gaps on the map between the ports of entry.
Just as former Homeland Security Department secretary Tom Ridge declared U.S. Visit the hallmark of his tenure, secretary Michael Chertoff has signaled that SBI.net and related border plans he is coordinating with the State Department will be his legacy.

'We have never had a credible plan to enforce the southern border,' DHS deputy secretary Michael P. Jackson said at a recent vendor meeting about plans for SBI.net in Washington.

President George W. Bush referred to the problem in last week's State of the Union address. 'Our nation needs orderly and secure borders,' he said. 'To meet this goal, we must have stronger immigration enforcement and border protection.'

DHS has not put a price tag on SBI.net, but market research firm Input of Reston, Va., estimates its potential value at $2 billion.

DHS officials themselves describe the situation along parts of the southern border as 'chaotic.' Vendors, congressional staff members and observers in the policy community agree that the administration is under pressure to show results in border control programs before the midterm elections.

But the department so far has released only broad-brush concepts of the technologies it seeks to purchase and is leaving many of the details up to the bidders. DHS plans to issue a statement of objectives to guide vendor teams as they craft comprehensive border technology deployment plans.

DHS officials, who admit they are proceeding on a fast track, said they plan to release a request for proposals in March and award an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract by Sept. 30. The IDIQ approach saddles vendors with significant risks, according to Tom Madden, partner in the Venable LLP law firm in Washington and an expert in federal contract law. He noted that in a statement of objectives acquisition, 'the definition of those objectives has to be developed very carefully.'
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Such procurements can allow so much room for interpretation that agencies receive valid bids with widely varying costs and technical approaches, Madden said. In addition, DHS faces the money issue.

'There are so many times when government issues an IDIQ contract that it says could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but it is not,' Madden said. 'There are some cases where the agencies make a good faith effort [to fulfill their funding promises] but the money evaporates'Congress diverts the money or priorities change.'

Despite these risks, vendor teams formed to bid on the predecessor America's Shield Initiative border technology program now are reviewing their agreements, preparing to bid on SBI.net. ASI was planned as a $2.5 billion program.

Teams led by Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp., Raytheon Corp., and possibly Boeing Corp. and General Dynamics Inc., were poised to bid on ASI, which the department cancelled last month.

But vendor executives speaking not for attribution expressed concern that DHS would not back up its promises with money. The ASI program has only $31 million from the fiscal 2006 budget, and major SBI.net spending will have to be provided for in the fiscal 2007 budget, which President Bush sent to Congress today.

'Our biggest concern is whether this is a real program,' said one vendor executive. 'The schedule seems too aggressive for DHS, considering their past performance on major technology programs.'

Another executive involved in planning a response to DHS' proposal request said, 'The technology is there for this, but they need to understand how to manage the assets.

'It is a big asset-tracking challenge,' the vendor executive said, referring to the need to manage border control technology.

The problem can be broken down into three phases, the executive said: providing effective information sharing, deploying functional telecommunications and re-engineering the Border Patrol.

DHS so far has released little information about the exact nature of the technology the systems integration team will have to deploy along the border.

Department officials have said SBI.net will use existing federal infrastructure along the border as well as Border Patrol personnel, whose ranks likely will be reinforced. DHS officials have also made vague references to such proven but innovative technologies as satellite communications and unmanned aerial vehicles.

DHS also has called for vendors to provide Border Patrol agents with a common operating picture by weaving together data from sensors on the ground, in the sky and on satellites, video cameras and other assets along the border.

SBI.net will incorporate program offices in three DHS directorates: CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Some skeptics in Congress already are doubtful about the prospects for SBI.net.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, expressed doubts about SBI.net.

'Anytime DHS announces a new initiative, I am starting to wonder what is really 'new' about it and how much of it is recycled from past initiatives that floundered, were ignored, or went simply unimplemented by DHS,' Thompson said.

Thompson called for the House Homeland Security Committee to oversee SBI.net closely, as it has U.S. Visit.
Concern about SBI.net isn't limited to Democrats.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Management, Integration and Oversight, said he'd keep a close eye on the project.

'Last year I visited the Southwest border and witnessed firsthand the problems with the border cameras,' Rogers said. 'I look forward to holding a third hearing on the issue this spring to find out what steps DHS will take to ensure the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the new Secure Border Initiative.'

Patrol veteran Rich Pierce is executive vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents Border Patrol agents. He forecasts that SBI.net would run into the same problems that sank previous technology projects.

'How are they going to do this?' Pierce asked rhetorically. 'That last fiasco with camera installations was a joke. Now, all of a sudden, we have changed and are able to do something 100 times more difficult? I don't think so.'

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