By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Aerospace and defense giant Boeing Co. has won a multibillion-dollar contract to revamp how the United States guards about 6,000 miles of border in an attempt to curb illegal immigration, congressional sources said yesterday.
Boeing's proposal relied heavily on a network of 1,800 towers, most of which would need to be erected along the borders with Mexico and Canada. Each tower would be equipped with a variety of sensors, including cameras and heat and motion detectors.
The company's efforts would be the basis of the government's latest attempt to control U.S. borders after a series of failures. The contract, part of the Secure Border Initiative and known as SBInet, will again test the ability of technology to solve a problem that lawmakers have called a critical national security concern. This time, the private sector is being given an unusually large say in how to do it.
Boeing sold its plan to the Homeland Security Department as less risky and less expensive than competing proposals that would have relied heavily on drones for routine surveillance work. Boeing plans only limited use of small unmanned aerial vehicles that could be launched from the backs of Border Patrol trucks when needed to help pursue suspects.
The system is to be installed first along the Mexican border in an area south of Tucson known to be a key crossing point for illegal immigrants. The company has said it can deploy the system along both borders within three years.
The public announcement of the award is planned for tomorrow. Several congressional and industry sources yesterday confirmed that Boeing had defeated four other companies in one of the most closely watched and intensely fought contract competitions this year. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the competition. Homeland Security spokesman Larry Orluskie said the department was "really close" to making an award.
Boeing officials declined to comment, pending official notification. In an interview this month, Boeing executive Wayne Esser said that despite the company's aviation experience, it wanted to keep its border surveillance systems on the ground. "The aerial platform just goes off the map from a cost standpoint," he said.
Homeland Security has been criticized harshly in recent years for initiatives that have either failed or far exceeded their budgets. In one case, cameras that the department installed on the borders broke down in bad weather.
"The administration has spent $429 million of the taxpayer's money to try and secure our borders with two already-abandoned border security programs," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss). He expressed concern that the same thing will happen to SBInet.
Mindful of that record, Boeing emphasized that all its technology has been proven to work. "The low-risk approach is probably going to carry weight here," Esser said.
From the beginning, department officials told industry leaders that they wanted immediate results. The contract proposed giving the private sector wide latitude in helping U.S. Customs and Border Protection figure out the right combination of technology, infrastructure and personnel needed to stop immigrants, terrorists and criminals from illegally crossing into the United States.
Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Michael P. Jackson said this year that he wanted the companies "to come back and tell us how to do our business."
SBInet has been regarded all year by many industry executives as a critical prize, since the Homeland Security Department's budget continues to boom and no single company has emerged to dominate the market.
As a result, there was pitched competition among defense companies for a contract that is estimated to be worth about $2.5 billion over the next four years. The contest included five prime contractors -- Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp., Raytheon Co., Ericsson Inc. and Boeing. Each rounded up dozens of subcontractors, bringing a wide variety of defense and technology firms into the competition.
Boeing's subcontractors include a Washington division of L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. and a Reston division of information technology firm Unisys Corp.
Boeing has been one of the Defense Department's largest contractors for decades, and has been trying to win Homeland Security awards since the department was created.
In pursuing this contract, Boeing pointed to its work installing explosive-detection systems at more than 400 airports in less than six months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But that contract was criticized by the Homeland Security's inspector general's office, which found that Boeing received $49 million in excess profit on a deal that was supposed to be worth $508 million but ballooned to $1.2 billion. Investigators also found that Boeing had subcontracted 92 percent of the work, and that the machines had high false-alarm rates. The company disputed those findings.
Winning SBInet is considered an important victory for Boeing as it seeks to overcome a number of recent setbacks, including a scandal in which a Pentagon official admitted favoring the company in exchange for a job, and the loss this summer in the competition to build the next U.S. manned spacecraft.