U.S. Border Security at a Crossroads

By Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Scott Higham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 23, 2005

Second of two articles

The race to tighten the nation's borders began just after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Authorities learned that hijackers had lived illegally in the country, renting apartments, taking flying lessons and moving around freely.

Congress demanded changes in border controls and tight deadlines for building a computer network that would screen foreign visitors as they seek to enter or leave the country by scanning their fingerprints and matching them against databases of suspected terrorists.

Pressing to meet that goal, the Homeland Security Department last year awarded one of the most ambitious technology contracts in the war on terror -- a 10-year deal estimated at up to $10 billion -- to the global consulting firm Accenture. In return, the company and its subcontractors promised to create a "virtual border" that would electronically screen millions of foreign travelers.

Documents and interviews with people familiar with the program, called US-VISIT, show that government officials are betting on speculative technology while neglecting basic procedures to ensure that taxpayers get full value from government contractors.

"There's no question we could end up spending billions of dollars and end up with nothing," said Steven A. Camarota, the director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit group that has been monitoring efforts to improve border controls. "It creates an illusion of security that doesn't exist."

Although the government has already spent or budgeted about $1 billion for the US-VISIT program, the new system is being built on top of aging computer databases and software that government scientists concluded two years ago are out of date, poorly coordinated and ineffective. Among them is a fingerprint system that does not use the government's state-of-the-art biometric standard. As a consequence, millions of dollars are budgeted this year for upgrades, according to budget documents.

The technology problems diminish the current effectiveness of US-VISIT, according to audits and government documents. Today, only a small fraction of foreign visitors -- fewer than 1 percent -- is fully screened by the existing system.

US-VISIT director James L. Williams defended the program's strategy, saying officials plan to phase in new technology over the next decade while taking steps in the next several years to maintain security with current technology. He said people should understand that US-VISIT is in its infancy.

"We're not even close to having a full biometric entry-exit system," he said. "It's an archaic system of technology."

Williams said he is relying heavily on Accenture because the government cannot undertake the complex technological assignment without the expertise of private industry. He said he is proud that the losing bidders have not challenged the award to Accenture and its subcontractors, known as the Smart Border Alliance.

"Accenture was clearly the best value," Williams said.

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