GAO report questions feds’ plan for Arizona border technology

GAO report questions feds’ plan for Arizona border technology

The U.S.-Mexico border fence near Yuma, Ariz. as seen from the outskirts of San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Customs and Border Protection needs to do a better job of justifying its plans for $1.5 billion border surveillance project at the Arizona-Mexico border, according to a government report released Friday.

The Government Accountability Office said immigration officials should further analyze the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology plan to justify the cost of the program, which is supposed to replace the now-abandoned Strategic Border Initiative, or SBInet.

The report said that without a full analysis of the new program and more accurate estimates of the costs, the plan might fail in its objective to secure the border.

“Without documentation of the analysis, there is no way to verify the process CBP (Customs and Border Protection) followed, identify how the underlying analyses were used, assess the validity of the decisions made, or justify the funding requested for the plan,” the report said.

The Department of Homeland Security received $185 million for the border technology plan in fiscal 2011 and has requested another $242 million for fiscal 2012, the report said.

The report was prepared for House Committee on Homeland Security, but leaders of the committee could not be contacted late Friday to comment on what action they might take as a result.

Phone calls to customs officials in Tucson and Washington were not immediately returned Friday. But in its written response to the report, the Department of Homeland Security agreed with most of the GAO recommendations.

But the Oct. 20 letter from the department defended the new plan so far, saying it is “providing faster deployment of technology … and a more effective balance between cost and capability.”

This plan was designed as a smaller, more-appropriate network of cameras, sensors and other surveillance technology to fill in gaps on the border from SBInet, which Homeland Security officials soured on in January. At the time, SBInet covered only 53 miles of the state’s 387-mile border with Mexico.

SBInet began in 2005 and lasted only five years at a cost of about $1 billion. After much criticism from lawmakers on the costs and mishandling of SBInet, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano canceled any expansion of the program.

“SBInet cannot meet its original objective of providing a single, integrated border-security technology solution,” Napolitano said in January.

At the time, Napolitano said the new plan would be “tailored to the unique needs of each border region” to cover the rest of the state border that SBInet does not cover.

While it canceled expansion of SBInet, the department has continued to operate those pieces already in place. The current 53 miles will be kept under surveillance by SBInet operations at an estimated cost of $10 million for fiscal 2012.

To develop needs and costs for the new, tailored plan, the department has gone to vendors and border patrol agents in the field, in addition to independent anaylsts, the report said. But the GAO said that was not enough.

Its report recommended that customs officials “document the analysis justifying the technologies proposed in the plan … and determine a more robust life-cycle cost estimate for the plan.”

Arizona has been targeted for border-surveillance technologies because nearly half of marijuana seizures in the Southwest border are being made in Arizona, according to statistics from customs officials.

In the first half of fiscal 2011, a total of 566,699 pounds of marijuana were seized at the Arizona border. And in fiscal 2010, more than 1 million pounds of 2.4 million pounds of marijuana seized along the Southwest border were stopped in Arizona, according to CBP statistics.

The state is also a hotspot for illegal entry, with nearly half of all arrests on the Southwest border in recent years occurring in Arizona.