A critical network of cameras and sensors installed for the U.S. Border Patrol along the Mexican and Canadian borders has been hobbled for years by defective equipment that was poorly installed, and by lax oversight by government officials who failed to properly supervise the project's contractor, according to government reports and public and industry officials.
The problems with the $239 million Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS), which U.S. officials call crucial to defending the country against terrorist infiltrators, are under investigation by the inspector general of the General Services Administration.
A faulty camera is supposed to monitor the border crossing near Blaine, Wash. Many of the cameras had shoddy wiring, GSA found.
(Jeff Vinnick For The Washington Post)
Map of ISIS: Over eight years, contractors installed a high-tech network of cameras and sensors to help the U.S. Border Patrol spot and track intruders. Now U.S. officials and some contractors are under investigation for poor contract oversight and project overcharges.
That probe, into whether government officials allowed the contractor to cut corners on the project and receive huge overcharges during its eight-year lifetime, could lead to administrative or criminal charges, the officials said. Perhaps tens of millions of dollars were wasted, the GSA suggested.
Many irregularities were documented in a scathing GSA inspector general's report, released in December, which cited millions of dollars in potential overcharges by the contractor, International Microwave Corp. (IMC), as well as the record of U.S. officials paying for work never performed.
The investigation focuses in part on IMC's employment of the daughter of Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), a former Border Patrol official and key backer of the system of 12,000 sensors and several hundred cameras installed for the Border Patrol between 1998 and last year, officials said. There is no indication that Reyes took part in any impropriety, they said.
Investigators are looking into the past activities of the Connecticut-based firm, as well as the actions of some current and former officials of the Border Patrol; its former parent agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service; and GSA.
Many of the ISIS cameras, which are placed on 50- to 80-foot poles, break down frequently. The wiring of the electronic system on the Canadian border with Washington is so slapdash that cameras there often jerk randomly in warm weather.
"The contractor sold us a bill of goods, and no one in the Border Patrol and INS was watching," said Carey James, the Border Patrol chief in Washington state until 2001. "All these failures placed Americans in danger."
Controversy about the project led U.S. officials to stop almost all work on ISIS about 16 months ago, officials said.
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security, now the parent of the Border Patrol, acknowledge that there were serious technical and oversight problems with the ISIS program.
Homeland Security officials say the ISIS network of cameras and sensors is helpful in spotting intruders and guiding border agents in hot pursuit, but needs to be expanded. It covers only a few hundred miles of the 6,500-mile Canadian and Mexican borders, and can be evaded by crossing the border where there is no ISIS gear.
Roger Schneidau, who helps run the Border Patrol's electronic barrier programs, said that "there are sites in varying need of repair," but that in places where the equipment is available and working, "it's incredibly useful to agents."
Anthony Acri, IMC's president until 2003, said ISIS is well-built and was a good investment for taxpayers. He said oversight by U.S. officials was proper and effective. Acri said that the halt in work on ISIS "is very dangerous for our country."
Many -- but not all -- of the system's problems have been resolved in the past year by repair work done by L-3 Communications Holdings Inc., a New York firm that bought IMC in 2003, officials said. L-3 officials fired some IMC executives, including Acri, industry executives said.