The Homeland Security Department is close to a decision on what's next for a costly, problem-plagued "virtual fence" ordered by Congress four years ago to help secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
What was supposed to be a fence of integrated technology to keep watch on most of the nearly 2,000-mile border has ended up in use across about 53 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border at a cost of at least $15 million a mile.
In a report this week, the Government Accountability Office said DHS has committed $1.2 billion for the project, known as SBInet, and inadequately managed it.
"A way forward on the future of SBInet is expected shortly and will be fully briefed to Congress when ready," Matthew Chandler, DHS spokesman, said Friday.
The border fence project and its contractor, Boeing Co., have been repeatedly criticized in GAO reports for delays and cost overruns.
Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the GAO report showed SBInet is headed in the wrong direction and looks forward to an effective program with prove border security measures "that are a sound use of taxpayer dollars."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano froze money for expansion of SBInet in January and has been assessing whether to kill the project, begun in 2006. The department declined to say what the secretary has decided, but all indications are SBInet is near its end. Homeland officials could have invoked a one-year extension of the Boeing contract, but opted instead last month to extend it only through Nov. 17.
In a June hearing, several lawmakers seemed prepared to end the project. A Homeland Security Department official said then the agency was very unlikely to continue the project to the rest of the border, which would cost about $8 billion and be completed sometime in 2016 or 2017. He said that would be a "worst case assessment."
"I doubt that we would conclude SBInet is the right answer for the entire border," Mark Borkowski, executive director of the SBI Program executive office, said then.
Borkowski said at the hearing Napolitano's assessment would decide whether the program is viable and whether "it's the right way to spend money."
He said the department would complete developing the system of fixed towers, radar and cameras and software and communication network that combines all information from the towers in one place to be acted on by the Border Patrol. Once completed, DHS planned to test the technology and decide whether expanding the system is worth the cost.
The fence is a Bush administration project intended to thwart potential terrorists and ramp up border security amid a heightened immigration debate. The Obama administration initially sought to continue it, but Napolitano froze money for expansion and ordered the assessment as reports of problems with the project began surfacing. After the funding was frozen, Napolitano steered about $50 million in economic stimulus money that had been intended for the fence to other proven technologies in use on the border.
Online: SBInet June House subcommittee hearing: http://homeland.house.gov/Hearings/index.asp