By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6, 2008
Stumping for President Bush's ill-fated immigration overhaul in 2006, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff vowed that his department would wrest "operational control" of the nation's borders away from human and drug traffickers within five years.
That projection was based on the prospect of tough new enforcement measures as well as a temporary-worker program meant to stanch the flow of illegal immigrants, including the most ambitious use of surveillance technology ever tried on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Two years later, the legislative overhaul has been shelved, development of the "virtual fence" has been delayed, and its designers are going back to the drawing board. Completion of its first phase has been put off until as late as 2011, congressional investigators say. The possibility of this outcome was flagged early on by internal and external watchdogs, who warned of unrealistically tight deadlines, vague direction to contractors, harsh operating conditions and tough requirements of Border Patrol end-users.
The virtual fence is not the first major contractor-led technology effort to be ineffective, incomplete or too expensive to sustain since the Department of Homeland Security was formed five years ago this month. Former officials, private-sector partners and independent analysts say the evolving 208,000-worker, $38 billion agency remains hindered by a crisis-of-the-moment environment, in which the rush to fulfill each new mandate or meet every threat undermines its ability to hold a strategic course and deliver promised results.
Among a slew of high-profile projects that have gone astray, DHS has struggled to field next-generation explosive-detection "puffer devices" at airports and has projected it could take $22 billion and 16 more years to deploy advanced baggage-screening systems in airports.
It scaled back and indefinitely delayed the "exit" half of a $10 billion, biometric entry-exit system to track foreign visitors using digital fingerprints and photographs, citing technological and cost problems. Homeland Security also faces a congressional mandate after the Dubai Ports World controversy to scan 100 percent of U.S.-bound shipping containers overseas, while scientific and logistical problems have hampered a $1.2 billion effort to field highly effective nuclear detection devices.
To be sure, the department's managers in its first half-decade have labored hard to oversee 22 rivalrous components. They have improved aviation security and forged a more unified strategy for improving border security and using intelligence.
DHS spokesman Russ Knocke noted that Chertoff this week requested a comprehensive review of airport screening policies to increase efficiency and eliminate outdated steps, and that the department has begun tracking exiting visitors at airports and expects more progress soon at land borders. DHS also moved faster than required to launch experimental scanning efforts at several overseas ports.
Still, the ever-growing list of troubled programs illustrates the extent to which each new crisis -- from the 2001 terrorist attacks to Hurricane Katrina to the Dubai ports scare to the Bush administration's push for comprehensive immigration policy revisions -- has forced DHS leaders to launch costly initiatives with broadly defined goals that wind up missing their targets.
"You felt the pressures. You see the threats. You see the political needs and you think, 'We need to make sure it's the best we can do to solve this problem as soon as we can.' And that's a constant problem with the department," said C. Stewart Verdery Jr., assistant secretary of policy for border and transportation security from 2003 to 2005, who now is a private consultant.
If the Pentagon is the bureaucratic equivalent of Washington's biggest, hardest-to-turn battleship, "DHS is like a speedboat and it keeps turning . . . constantly shifting gears," Verdery said. "If you told people five years ago there was going to be a billion dollars for a fence, people would have laughed at you."
Department veterans complain that its contract-management system is weak, and that it still has trouble working with experts both inside and outside government to set rigorous, enforceable requirements on contractors.
"You have management issues, political pressure, the complexity of what is arguably a very tough thing to do, all within an unreasonable deadline and it's kind of the old adage -- we can hurry up and do it fast, or we can take a little bit longer and do it right," said George W. Foresman, DHS assistant secretary for preparedness from 2005 to 2007. "External pressures on DHS made this a hurry-up-and-do-it-fast."
Chertoff disputed congressional investigators' findings based on DHS work schedules indicating that completion of the first phase of the virtual fence may be delayed up to three years, including a planned expansion of the tower system to another stretch in Arizona -- 37 miles near Yuma -- and a span near El Paso.
Instead, he said that technical problems discovered in a 28-mile pilot project south of Tucson caused only a half-year delay, produced "functionally workable" tools that are helping agents now, and are only a small part of a broad deployment of other ground, aerial and mobile sensors.
But contractor Boeing Corp., which received about $18 million for its work, is being paid an additional $60 million to replace the program's key component and original goal, better software to link sensors and users. Boeing will also test and integrate equipment in laboratories instead of the field and will work more closely with Border Patrol agents, DHS and company officials said.
When DHS announced the fence contract in September 2006 and called for an operational pilot by June 2007, Chertoff said that "we're not interested in performing science experiments on the border," and he emphasized the need for proven technology. "A common complaint about government is there's a lot of lofty rhetoric, but there's no metrics, there's no holding to deadlines, and the achievement always falls short of what the original proposal is. Well, we're very mindful of that," he said.
In May 2006, however, then-Rep. Martin O. Sabo (Minn.), ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, had warned Chertoff in a letter that DHS's contract solicitation did not set a price tag for providing up to "6,000 miles of secure U.S. border" and failed to define its measure of success for controlling the border -- a benchmark for which DHS acknowledges it still has no wholly satisfactory definition.
"The only conclusion I can reach is that the SBINET solicitation is a public relations document," Sabo said in his letter. "It provides the Administration with the cover to say that you are doing something to secure the borders."
DHS and its precursors had already been stung by two earlier U.S. border surveillance programs, spending $429 million between 1998 and 2005 and reaping a warning system triggered by insects, horses and weather, DHS's inspector general reported in December 2005. Border Patrol agents eventually ignored 60 percent of the sensor alerts, while 90 percent of the rest were false alarms and only 1 percent led to arrests.
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a former chairman of the Senate Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, this week called the pilot fence -- known as Project 28 -- a good-news, bad-news story: It did not work as expected, he said, but its cost was curbed by DHS leaders. Funding a virtual fence was politically necessary for Bush's immigration overhaul to advance, Gregg said, but "I think everyone presumed that once we funded it, it would work." He added: "I don't know where we go from here."
DHS officials are scheduled to testify before the House spending panel today about whether the agency's December 2006 projection that it could secure the border by 2011 with technology, physical fencing and vehicle barriers for $7.6 billion will change. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), former chairman and now the panel's ranking minority member, called "delays and excuses within the Secure Border Initiative . . . unacceptable. We need to know when it will work, how much it will cost and what we are paying for."
Michael P. Jackson, deputy secretary from 2005 until October 2007, said Americans must learn to allow DHS to balance risks against resources, whether in controlling the border, securing inbound sea cargo or tightening airport security.
"People keep demanding with each new homeland security challenge, 'Fix this today,' " Jackson said. "DHS is not funded to address every one, there's not time to do every one, and some of the increased effort needed to eliminate all risk for a given problem ends up . . . wasting time, focus and dollars."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.