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Second Chance for SBINet? Mexican Border Heats Up

An SBINet tower
An SBINet tower

Will SBINet get a second chance?

Some say “yes,” but its brand may change.

Last week, Alan Bersin, commissioner of Customs & Border Protection (CBP) at DHS, promoted Mark Borkowski, SBINet’s project manager, to run a new office tasked with managing complex acquisition processes for CBP.  The move is part of a broader effort at DHS to reexamine its approach to technology investment in response to a series of unflattering GAO reports and pursuant Congressional pressure.

SBINet began in September, 2006 as a five-year plan to secure America’s 2000-mile-long southern border with tower-mounted cameras, radar, networked communications and other surveillance equipment. GAO reports critical of the program began issuing at regular intervals beginning five months later with “SBInet Expenditure Plan Needs to Better Support Oversight and Accountability.”

Borkowsi told HSToday.us last week that Bersin is examining CBP’s technology investments “across the board,” and that while discussion of CBP’s technology investments centers mostly around SBINet, “CBP has quite a bit of technology investment.”

Borkowski stressed his promotion won’t unfreeze SBINet, even though he’ll continue to manage the program directly, but could CBP’s new approach to acquisitions breathe new life into the troubled program?  Or will it mean the end of the “virtual fence” along America’s southern border?

SBINet began in September, 2006 as a five-year plan to secure America’s 2000-mile-long southern border with tower-mounted cameras, radar, networked communications and other surveillance equipment. GAO reports critical of the program began issuing at regular intervals beginning five months later with “SBInet Expenditure Plan Needs to Better Support Oversight and Accountability.”

After a delay in construction in 2008 because DHS never performed an environmental impact study, the Obama administration jump-started the program upon taking office by announcing a new five-year timetable for the fence’s completion.  But in March, after DHS’ inspector general found more problems with the project, Janet Napolitano froze all work on SBINet other than two 50-mile pilot sections, leading many to speculate that the program was dead for good.

In Congress, the program has few friends.  Congressional Democrats are almost uniformly opposed to the program.  The stubbornly independent Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn) said SBINet was “a classic example of a program that was grossly oversold and has badly under-delivered.”  He added, “almost four years after SBInet began, after $770 million has been spent directly on SBInet…we are still waiting on the testing of a 23-mile stretch in the Tucson sector!”

It’s not just Democrats, though.  Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), who represents the only state where any construction has been completed, called the program “a complete failure” in April, citing hundreds of millions of “wasted” taxpayer dollars and “a lack of oversight and a lack of accountability.”

Even Mark Borkowski doubts SBINet can succeed, even though he has been its program manager since 2008.  In June, he testified before a joint Congressional hearing that “my expectation is that we would not end up with SBInet all along the border. Already that doesn’t look like the wise thing to do.”  He added that finishing the project would cost almost $8 billion and take until 2016 or 2017.

Alan Bersin, Mark Borkowski’s boss, agrees.  In April, he told Congress SBINet isn’t “practicable” in the “near term.”  Even Napolitano, Alan Bersin’s boss, told Congress in March that she was “not satisfied” with SBINet.

In other words, SBINet isn’t going to move forward in its current form: the “virtual fence” approach is officially dead.  However, that doesn’t mean that DHS won’t take SBINet in a different direction altogether.  When Napolitano told Congress she was “not satisfied” with SBINet, she continued “before we go across that border with this – these big towers, SBInet, we are going to reevaluate how those technology dollars are used and whether there are other technologies perhaps that have been developed since SBInet was contracted that would be more mobile, better, easier to maintain and easier to operate.”

Mark Burkowski agrees, and when he testified before Congress in June calling SBINet “unwise,” he said that DHS would probably move forward with “alternate technologies” such as UAV or blimp surveillance mixed with camera towers.  Also, last week, when discussing the questions he was tasked to answer in his new position, he said, “How do we make decisions to buy this technology opposed to that technology? How do we make decisions to buy unmanned aerial systems instead of SBInet?”

Since FAA made a key ruling in June that allows UAVs to fly in American airspace, it seems like DHS is dropping some pretty strong hints that it plans to restructure border security around UAVs instead of surveillance towers.

That would accomplish several goals at once.  First, it would mean using already-proven military hardware instead of developing an entirely new surveillance platform.  Second, it opens the door for a pan-CBP blanket purchase agreement (BPA) for unmanned systems instead of an application-specific implementation.

After all, CBP also has jurisdiction over port security and unmanned aerial surveillance systems apply to that mission as well.

Considering that Dan Gordon, OFPP administrator, has made BPAs a priority as a cost-cutting measure, it seems likely that SBINet will be dropped or scaled back dramatically in favor of UAV patrols.

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