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GAO: Maybe SBINet Needs Fresh Focus

Delays and performance shortfalls mean border patrol officers are relying on outdated equipment instead of the high-tech, integrated web of technology the initiative has promised.

The Government Accountability Office brought another tough review of SBInet to Capitol Hill Thursday, saying delays and performance shortfalls mean border patrol officers are relying on outdated equipment instead of the high-tech, integrated web of technology the initiative has promised.

Seeing the “common operating picture” (photo by James Tourtellotte/CBP) At a hearing Thursday, the lead author of a GAO report testified that taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s worth. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said SBInet should get itself working or find an alternate strategy.

“SBInet technology capabilities have not yet been deployed and delays require Border Patrol … to rely on existing technology for securing the border, rather than using newer technology planned to overcome the existing technology’s limitations,” the report says.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee overseeing border issues, called the reliance on old gear “troubling.”

Flaws found in testing, as well as environmental concerns, have cause the completion date of the network to skip from early Fiscal Year 2009 (the date targeted back in 2006) to 2016.

The GAO report noted that despite a $2.4 billion investment in “tactical” infrastructure—fencing, roads, vegetation removal—its contribution to effective control of the border has not been measured. GAO said Customs and Border Patrol “is limited in its ability to fully implement the objectives of the Border Patrol strategy,” and recommended DHS go ahead and assess the value of the tactical infrastructure investment.

SBInet went back to the drawing board last year after poor test performance of its remove video surveillance systems, but has said it had worked out most of the problems and this summer ratcheted up deployment of the systems on the northern border. SBInet officials promised another round of tests this winter and it says it’s learned from its mistakes and is on the road to an effective system.

GAO outlined some of the frustrations in the field. “During our site visit to the Tucson sector in March 2009, Border Patrol agents told us, as they had during our previous visits, that the system had improved their operational capabilities, but that they must continue to work around ongoing problems, such as finding good signal strength for the wireless network, remotely controlling cameras, and modifying radar sensitivity,” GAO reported. “Furthermore, they said, and we observed, that few of the agents were currently using the mobile data terminals installed in 50 of the sector’s vehicles, instead relying on agents operating the COP (common operating picture) to relay information about the whereabouts of suspected illegal migrants. One reason agents do not use the mobile data terminals is that it can take up to an hour to log into the system depending on signal strength and because the signal, once gained, is sometimes lost multiple times during a shift.”

Also this week, SBInet extended its contract with Boeing on the project, a move pegged months ago by SBInet Executive Director Mark Borkowski as a foregone conclusion. He told the House panel Thursday that the structure of the contract was awkward and shouldn’t be repeated.

Boeing said it’s not getting a free ride, but in fact has lost money on the venture so far.