The Washington Times reported on Monday that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Secure Border Initiative (SBI), designed to stem illegal immigration and secure U.S. borders, is far behind schedule, despite the $672 million spent thus far. This is not breaking news, as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been reporting to Congress since September that the project is in trouble.
SBInet is the high-tech aspect of SBI; a “virtual fence” or mix of physical barriers supplemented with surveillance technology. Boeing was awarded over $1 billion in contracts to build SBInet, but it seems their progress has not met expectations. Indeed, the GAO reported in September that the project’s future is tentative, and with the President’s 30 percent budget reduction for the project, it is unclear when SBInet will be complete, if at all.
A “virtual” or technology-based fence is the right idea. It is certainly preferable to a full physical fence, which is impractical along much of our 2000-mile southern border. But while the intention is sound, the big problem, in my view, has been the lack of program oversight by Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
When I was Under Secretary at DHS, we implemented the US-VISIT program, a complex initiative that required advanced technology. Working with new technologies requires coordination, and we held to the implementation schedule in large part because we had a strong program office. Consistent oversight and a clear delegation of authority for timely decisions were keys to our success.
For SBInet, Congress needs to be sure that sufficient funds are appropriated for agency oversight when a major contract is given to the private sector, and DHS should also define clear lines of decision making within the agency for the project.
Securing our southern border is an important homeland security initiative. Let’s hope it’s not too late to salvage a great idea from insufficient program management.