Transcript

Special Report: Department of Homeland Security

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Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Reporters
Monday, May 23, 2005; 11:00 AM

In a special report, Post reporters Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr. examine how homeland security contracting. After the terror attacks on New York and Washington, the U.S. government rushed to secure the nation. Billions of dollars were spent but the government's own internal audits have repeatedly questioned the cost and effectiveness of the equipment and security systems purchased from corporations that received a torrent of money under loosened regulations, limited oversight and tight congressional deadlines.

Post reporters Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr. were online to answer your questions on the report.

Read more: Contracting Rush for Security Led to Waste, Abuse.

U.S. Border Security at a Crossroads.

A transcript follows.

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Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Thanks for joining us. We look forward to talking about what we believe are some very compelling issues. Please send along any questions you have...

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Washington, D.C.: You identify a number of problems related to staffing--either not enough people or not enough experience/training. In an environment where government is expected to do more with less people, what is the solution?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: This goes right to one of the paradoxical issues we faced in our reporting. The government wants to take advantage of the smarts and experience of the private section - especially information technology companies. At the same time, contracting specialists say that means the government needs ever more talented people to keep track of the taxpayer money. Homeland security leaders tell us without any doubt they recognize the need and plan to address it.

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Arlington, Va.: Great article! What bothers me most is that most of these costs are designed to combat the threat of terrorists as passengers. We don't need more gadgets to screen old ladies' tennis shoes. We do need to protect planes from shoulder-fire rockets. Why is this obvious threat being all but ignored?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Thanks. As for your question, this stuff is hard. Security is a never ending challenge for homeland security officials. There are a lot of different kinds of threats. We focused on questions about whether the contracts to address those threats are being managed well.

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New York, N.Y.: Why does the border-crossing card not work with IDENT?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: They weren't designed to operate together. Now officials are exploring whether they can be made to interact in a way that helps tighten border protections....

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Washington, D.C.: Gentlemen - I will be hard at work (in my position as a procurement analyst with a large executive agency) at the time of your discussion and will not be able to participate in your discussion. Nevertheless, I wanted to mention that based on my own 30-year experience in the federal procurement sector there's not much new in your excellent report. Government procurement has grown increasing lax over the years as responsibility -- but not always accountability -- has shifted to our private sector "partners." In some cases this isn't a problem. But in many cases it is a problem -- and in the case of fighting terrorism the stakes are far, far too high for the kinds of "experiments" James Williams seems to think are perfectly acceptable, notwithstanding his own "worries."

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Interesting...thanks.

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Grand Rapids, Mich.: Thanks for writing this piece. I worked for Siemens, who contracted the installation of the bomb-detection machines. Your article matched my experience and confirmed my suspicions about certain prime contractors and the TSA: they were asleep at the wheel. There were multiple layers of contractors with precious little oversight, financial or contractual. This whole project was a tremendous waste of taxpayer money, and we are no more secure than we were before.

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Hmm. Why don't you give us a call and maybe we can chat one day over a Coke? Thanks for the note.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Why should we care about any of this? The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll 4/24/05 showed that only 12% feel terrorism should be the "highest priority for Bush and Congress", and those that do care apparently feel that Bush is doing a good job with a 56% approval on "the U.S. campaign against terrorism".

In fact last week The Post carried an article about a Mr. Smith (from Nashville) going to Washington. He must have felt things are safe enough, since he took his family there on vacation.

Thank you.

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: This is about more than just security, though of course that's front and center. It's about how your government manages taxpayer money, and whether government-industry "partnerships" are working as well as they should.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Would you say there has been widespread criminal or civil fraud by contractors on these Homeland Security contracts or have the losses to the government resulted from just mismanagement by the agency?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: A federal task force has been formed out of the US Attorney's Office in Alexandria, and it will be looking at such questions.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you believe that the demand for additional staff has caused the DHS to circumvent the OMB Circular A-76 definition of "inherently governmental" and contract out work that should, by law, remain in-house with federal employees?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Though not many folks know about A-76, it's an important question that goes to the heart of what government should be doing. Some contracting specialists say that line - between government and the private sector - is blurring. The question is: Who is going to make sure that corporations, whose primary aim is getting paid, don't take over control of government programs?

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Arlington, Va.: After reading your articles, it sounds to me that the U.S. has spent most of it's homeland security funding on "feel good" security measures. By that, I mean security changes that make the public feel good and perhaps safer, but in effect, do nothing to enhance actual security. The airports are a prime example: tests have shown them to be no more reliable at screening luggage than before 9/11. To top it off, none of the cargo is screened. It's like double-locking the front door, and leaving the back door open. How much more secure are we today?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: That's a really good question. For now, it remains a source of intense debate.

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Arlington, Va.: What is your sense of Sec. Chertoff and his new team, and how they are likely to deal with these kinds of issues (procurement management, financial controls, US-VISIT technology) in their current review of DHS?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: We understand from some of his senior staff that he has made these sorts of issues a top priority. He is currently conducting a broad review of he agency's performance, including how it oversees relationships with companies.

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Bethesda, Md.: As you point in your excellent article today, many of the same people who engineered and oversaw creation of the failed IDENT back in the 90's are still around working on U.S.VISIT. What are your thoughts on how this could come to be, and what are the reactions of Commissioner Bonner and Secretary Chertoff to your findings?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: We thought that was interesting as well. We don't have the reaction of Bonner and Chertoff on that issue.

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Whetstone, Ariz.: I believe that most of our border security is not much more than a scam on the American taxpayers. With billions being spent on the Border Patrol, INS and other agencies it never ceases to amaze me how ineffective they are. I could show you around my own area and point out many examples of what I am talking about.

Is your task on government waste going to stop with technology issues or is your paper interested in looking at the overall picture?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: We're focusing on government contracting and the effectiveness of arrangements with the private sector. At the end of our chat, our colleagues at washingtonpost.com will post a link enabling any of you to contact us with any hints, suggestions or tips. We look forward to hearing from you.

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Washington, D.C.: I realize the dollars involved with DHS are more impressive, but do you think a similar article could have been written about other government agencies using similar partnerships?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Yes.

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Nijmegen, The Netherlands: The same things are happening in the Netherlands. It seems tot evolve around the question whether the 'market' in itself will lead to the best results or not and how to organize the demand-side in order to achieve this best result. Denying the organizational cost of the demand will clear politicians of their responsibility and serves the political idea that free markets will serve the society better, but without comparative analysis we don't know the effectiveness of this approach, both in terms of costs and time-to-deliver. Is such analysis under way ? (In the Netherlands the mere raising of this question normally leads to emotional reactions and frequently the disposal of this question as being part of a neo-communist plot).

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: An interesting perspective. Thanks for joining us. (What's the weather like there?)

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Woodbridge, Va: What information do you have about a local northern Virginia company overcharging the government (double the money) on a contract in Qatar and Iraq?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: What information do you have?

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Washington, D.C.: One of the areas you stressed was the lack of contract staff at the DHS. It is my understanding that the lengthy delays in getting new staff security clearance is a genuine roadblock. Are there ways to speed up this process?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: That's interesting. Please contact us?

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Olney, Md.: Are we still getting flak from other countries regarding our fingerprinting of incoming visitors? How has the policy affected tourism?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Yes. Fingerprints - and the use of over biometrics such as irises and face-prints - makes many people uncomfortable. Some officials predict that Americans will have to share their fingerprints or face-prints when traveling abroad.

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Washington, D.C.: What is the role of the GAO in this?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: The Government Accountability Office is assigned by Congress to conduct a wide array of audits. The office has several teams dedicated to examining homeland security programs. They have issued dozens of detailed reports outlining their findings - many of them quite compelling. By going to washingtonpost.com, you can find links to many of those GAO reports. (You will also find links to reports by other auditors.)

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washingtonpost.com: To contact the Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr. with additional information, please use the following address: dhscontracts@washingtonpost.com

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Tucson, Ariz.: I've worked a long time on the policy issues behind using card technology for identification. There were always many lively debates over which technologies are best, how to address privacy issues, and so on. But the one thing always taken as a given -- the one immovable force in the debate -- was that Rep. Rogers of Kentucky must have his pork. All security considerations are secondary to his appetite for taxpayer dollars in his district.

Thanks for finally shining some light on that particular cockroach. Though, unfortunately, I doubt that any amount of shame will move him to do the right thing for the nation rather than just his own constituents.

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: We would like to talk with you. Please contact us.

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Washington, D.C.: Ex-USVISIT project member here.

Some of those "same people who worked on the failed IDENT project" are very good people who understand the technology needed and have the talent and skills to make the governments vision a reality.

The problem is the ever changing requirements changes, scope creep and lack of coherent vision in how not only this project but similar projects such as ADIS, CBPPASS, IBIS, etc will function as a cohesive strategy in preventing illegal immigration and easing travel of "trusted passengers".

The government can audit contracts, change contractors and kill initiatives all they want. But until they get a grip on exactly what they are trying to achieve, the contracting community (who despite public perception fueled by nonsense articles like the one that appeared this morning is with few exceptions dedicated to the task of providing excellent service to the government and their country) is in a no win situation in attempting to play mind reader to what it is the government is asking for.

DHS needs disciplined vision and cohesion from the top. Without it, it will always be a mess. DESPITE the effort of well meaning contractors.

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Thanks for contributing.

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New York, N.Y.: What percentage of the worthless security technology and equipment was bought from Republican controlled corporations? How many of those corporations were sizable donors to the Bush campaign or the Republican party?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Now, now...

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Maryland: The Department of Homeland Security sounds like the new pig in town and contractors sense a new food supply. How effective an agency is the Department of Homeland Security in your opinion?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: The best way to start to answer that question may be to review the government's own audits of homeland security programs, some of which are linked to washingtonpost.com.

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Davenport, Iowa: Isn't the US-VISIT system supposed to be "open" to new types of technology, such as different biometrics (facial or iris scan), or communications technology? Is that the way it is being developed?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: They are exploring some cutting edge technology.

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Washington, D.C.: Is US-VISIT ever going to be able to deal comprehensively with all the people who exit this country across land borders, without changing the physical logistics of those facilities? Anyone who has visited the San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego would find that nearly impossible to imagine. And what happens to all the paper I-94 cards that are currently collected? Would they go away?

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: It depend who you talk to. One audit report suggested the overall cost of US-VISIT could rise as a result of the need to reconfigure ports of entry.

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Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: Thanks everyone. We really appreciate all your thoughtful questions. We look forward to talking with some of you in person.

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


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