A pair of House subcommittees grilled officials from SBInet and its prime contractor, Boeing, as the Government Accountability Office reported Thursday that about 70 percent of the procedures for key tests on the project "were rewritten extemporaneously during execution" to create better test results.
The report, which also said new problems are arising twice as frequently as they're getting solved, came just a few days after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano suspended new work on the program and diverted $50 million in stimulus funds to other border patrol efforts.
Members of the pair of Homeland Security Subcommittees peppered SBInet Executive Director Mark Borkowski and Roger A. Krone, president of Network and Space Systems at Boeing Defense, Space & Security, about the program of sensors, long-rage and infrared cameras that has failed to meet the promises made to Congress about costs and speed of deployment.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, chairman of the Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism, who represents the border area from Nuevo Laredo to McAllen, complained that at the current pace, it would take till the year 2330 to deploy SBInet along the Southwest border.
"The tests are being rigged," he said. "I hope the department is working on a Plan B."
"Does it make sense for us to keep thowing money at this program?" asked Rep. Christopher P. Carney, D-Penn., chairman of the Subcommittee on Management, Investigations, and Oversight. "Do we get a refund?"
Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, noted soime time back, Congress was promised effective control of the entire Southwest border by 2008 and for $2 billion. So far, It's covering maybe 20 miles, and more than $750 million has been spent--$650 million to Boeing.
Thompson asked: "We're now faced with the question: Should SBInet even proceed?"
Borkowski ackowledged that even that was a fair question. But he pointed to the future and the progress that's been made. Where and when SBInet has been turned over to the Border Patrol (in the Tucson-1 Sector, during night shifts) it's working well, he said.
The panel even saw a video, including infrared footage, of a pack of smugglers in the desert; the camera panned and zoomed effectively, allowing Border Patrol agents to give real-time information to their colleagues on the ground.
But in addition to the longstanding complaint about SBInet's delays and cost overruns, some on the subcommittees fumed over the GAO report of significant changes to test requirements--some with test requirements crossed out and last-minute substitutes hand-written on test documents--to skew the results for more passing grades.
"I used to be a professor," Carney said. "You don't change the test in the middle of the test." .
Randolph C. Hite, director of IT Architecture & Systems Issues at the GAO and prime author of the report, agreed with Carney, especially considering the volume and scope of changes. He said some of the tests were structured incorrectly in the first place.
"So we're not far enough along in the process to know what questions to ask?" Carney responded.
Asked directly, Borkowski said he was responsible for the testing missteps, but he quickly said that it was his team that found a lot of the changes.
Krone, from Boeing, looked at the bright side citing "significant progress" and real-world operation in the Tucson-1 sector, with the Ajo-1 Sector a work in a progress, and up north with the Buffalo-area project delivered and Detroit in the works.
But in the Tucson area, he said, the system has performed reliably and effectively seven days a week, delivering a tactical advantage now to agents.
"It works today," he said. "And it will get better."
He also praised the Border Patrol officers for being quick learners on the "Common Operating Picture" system, using it effectively with just three days of training.
Rep. Carney praised Krone for "an inspired performance" in spinning the situation.
But Congress isn't ready to give up on the project, holding their fire until Napolitano's assessment is completed. Borkowski said that if the project is able to move forward, The Tuscon-1 and Ajo-1 sectors should be good to go around the end of 2010 or early 2011.
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