The sun was strong and so was the rhetoric, as President George W. Bush headed to
As with so many other pressing issues — from terrorism to oil dependency — the White House is turning to the military industrial complex for a solution. SBI is the plan of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to erect a “virtual fence” of monitors, sensors, unmanned planes, and communications to help border agents catch illegal immigrants crossing the southern border.
In September 2006, DHS awarded initial contracts — worth upwards of $2 billion — for the high-tech surveillance technology along border region to weapons giant Boeing. The Chicago-based manufacturer beat out rivals Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman to gain a foothold in the lucrative realm of homeland security. Boeing was the Pentagonâ€™s second largest contractor in 2006 with $20.3 billion in deals and now finds itself well positioned to receive the billions in contracts that DHS is doling out. It leads a team of more than half a dozen companies developing and deploying a network of advanced systems that could — if it all works and is funded — give DHS patrols a clear picture of everything that moves across almost 2,000 miles of border territory.
What is missing is a clear picture of exactly how many billions it will cost. Last November, Richard Skinner, the inspector general of DHS told lawmakers that estimates for this advanced surveillance network are all over the map: from the low end of $2 billion to a high of between $8 billion to $30 billion. Skinner testified that â€œour frustration right now is that we donâ€™t know what itâ€™s going to cost. We just donâ€™t know what the big picture is.â€
DHS answered that frustration with the Secure Border Strategic Plan the following month, stressing that â€œit expects to complete the SBI investment need to gain control of the Southwest land border by the end of FY 2011, although we certainly expect to gain substantial control of the border prior to that time.â€ The report put the estimate of total costs for equipment, logistics, and manpower at $7.6 billion though 2011. But, the Department admits it â€œdoes not as yet have a wholly satisfactory methodology of determining whether a portion of the border is considered under control.â€
Luckily, some members of Congress are not accepting that. Henry Waxman (D-CA), the Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and his staff are looking into the issue of contractor oversight, pointing out that â€œ60 of the 98 people overseeing the border project are contractors.â€ A February 8 memo from his staff alleged that â€œat least one contractor hired to engage in contract oversight on the border project — Booz Allen Hamilton — may have a conflict of interest with Boeingâ€ and suggested that because the technology consulting firm has teamed up with Boeing on a number of other contracts, it cannot provide effective and impartial oversight. Booz Allen Hamilton executives rejected this suggestion.
DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, in a press conference following President Bushâ€™s speech, was quick to assert the Secure Border Initiativeâ€™s judicious use of resources: â€œWe’re not just going to say, â€˜Oh, this looks like some neat stuff, let’s buy it and then put it on the border.â€™â€ However, a look at some of the systems military contractors are proposing demonstrates that â€œbuying neat stuffâ€ is exactly what may happen. For 2008, the president is requesting $46.4 billion in funding for DHS, an 8% increase over 2007. And with President Bushâ€™s belated focus on border security and immigration reform, it is likely that more money will be spent in a hurry. In border security, a new focus on high-tech solutions follows on a wave of failure and money wasted. A $425 million system of cameras and sensors was installed improperly and never worked effectively, and a $6.8 million unmanned aerial vehicle patrolling the border crashed and was destroyed.
FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan is a senior research associate at the