By Spencer S. Hsu and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
The federal government has spent $195 million on a long-promised wireless radio network for the nation's law enforcement agencies that is at "high risk of failure," the Justice Department's inspector general reported yesterday.
Inspector General Glenn A. Fine blamed delays, funding shortfalls and infighting among the Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury departments, whose 81,000 agents are expected to use the $5 billion system when it is completed by 2021.
For example, the Justice Department has spent almost two-thirds of $772 million that Congress provided for the program over six years to maintain its existing, antiquated radio systems instead of advancing the new program, called the Integrated Wireless Network (IWN), Fine reported. The Department of Homeland Security, saying it cannot afford to wait for results, is going its own way to develop communications systems for specific regions and its immigration and Border Patrol agencies.
The federal partnership is "fractured in its approach and disjointed in its goals," Fine reported. "The system that results from this partnership likely will not be the seamless, interoperable system that was originally envisioned and . . . may not be adequate in the event of another terrorist attack or national disaster."
Members of Congress, which is controlled by Democrats, blamed a failure of administration leadership for the problems reported by Fine.
"This IG report shows an outrageous absence of effective leadership that has apparently put this critical homeland security communications project in grave danger of failure," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate's homeland security panel.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, warned that first responders' lives will be lost if they cannot talk to one another.
"What type of example are we setting for states and locals to get this right if the federal government can't?" Thompson said.
The need to upgrade and unify emergency law enforcement communications has long been identified by emergency personnel as a major problem, one underscored by the confusion seen in the response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Bush administration often characterizes the issue as a state and local government matter, and IWN marks the federal government's biggest commitment yet to improve communications across all levels and consolidate law enforcement agencies' use of highly valuable bandwidth on the radio spectrum.
IWN would establish a secure wireless network to carry voice, data and video for federal officers from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Treasury Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others, at a cost some private analysts estimated could reach $30 billion, or six times current estimates.
More than 15 months behind schedule, U.S. officials are on the verge of awarding a multibillion-dollar contract for the system to one of two industry teams led by General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin, respectively. Spokesmen for the companies declined to comment yesterday.
But the inspector general's office urged the departments to restate their commitment to the project or notify Congress of their failure to do so.
According to Fine, Justice officials said their Department of Homeland Security colleagues "never participated at the level DOJ expected." Justice said the effort has been repeatedly set back by high turnover at the four-year-old Homeland Security department.
In a written statement, Justice Department spokesman Van Hitch said the report "raises valid concerns regarding funding and interagency partnership." Fitch added that "the Department believes the IWN program is the most appropriate strategy for providing DOJ agents with secure, reliable and interoperable communications in the field."
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Larry Orluskie said only that "DHS concurs with Justice's recommendations."
Fine reported that Department of Homeland Security agents will account for 64 percent of the expected users of the network. But DHS officials appear to be pursuing separate communications systems. For example, the department cites Congressional pressure to speed along a high-technology "virtual" fence on the border with Mexico, part of its Secure Border Initiative.
Last September, DHS awarded an SBInet contract to independently upgrade communications and surveillance systems used by Border Patrol officers and customs agents.
IWN's troubles are not the first time the Justice or Homeland Security departments have struggled to develop new technology. The FBI in 2005 abandoned its Trilogy plan to overhaul its antiquated case filing and management system after spending $170 million.
Fine's office warned that the department's aging radio systems also face a slowly developing crisis. Nearly three-fourths of the department's 4,163 radio system sites are considered obsolete because they are no longer supported by the manufacturer, making spare parts difficult to find and requiring customized maintenance.
Replacing those systems would cost the Justice Department $900 million, while meeting its share of IWN would cost another $2 billion, the inspector general report stated. It added that a "major infusion of funding will be required over the next several years."