N4T Investigators: U.S. awards border contract to company that already failed

KVOA News – by Tom McNamara and Michel Marizco

TUCSON – The United States awarded an Israeli company a $145 million contract to build a surveillance system along Arizona’s border with Mexico. But federal records show that the same company had a hand in much the same border security project eight years ago.

That project, called the Strategic Border Initiative, failed and some wonder whether this project won’t also fail.  

The company is called Elbit Systems. It’s a surveillance company that builds border control systems for Israeli police forces. The Homeland Security Department hired Elbit last Thursday to deliver surveillance equipment such as radars and cameras mounted on towers. Those are supposed to help U.S. Border Patrol agents track migrants and drug smugglers trying to cross the Arizona border.

But an Elbit Systems subsidiary, Kollsman, Inc., was hired in 2006 as a subcontractor to work with the Boeing Corporation to build the same type of system. It was called SBInet, for Strategic Border Initiative. Elbit Systems of America CEO Tim Taylor, said at the time, “The strategic and technological strengths we bring to the Boeing SBInet team will help to restore the safety and security that Americans have known for so long.”

The project was replete with problems from the beginning. Finally, after five years and one billion dollars, Boeing, Elbit and at least two other subcontractors managed to complete only a small part of the project. As a result, then Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano finally scrapped the project in January 2011.

Linda Thomas worked for a SBInet subcontractor, L3 Communications on part of the project, before quitting in frustration. “There wasn’t much meaningful going on with the SBInet program. We were not having success in building anything,” she said. “And it didn’t appear that anything much was working with it.”

Cameras that were supposed to record movement up to 18 miles away had focal lengths that only reached three miles. Agents were issued laptops with stylus pens that couldn’t be used on the border’s rugged terrain. Sensors would confuse wind, rain, and the movement of cattle, for humans crossing the border illegally.

An Office of Inspector General audit found that Homeland Security gave Boeing and its subcontractors like Elbit too much leeway in project deadlines and in undetailed expenses. Thomas questions whether anything has changed between the old project and this latest project, which is akin to a smaller model of the SBInet system.

“I don’t know how a tower system can be any different than that. What’s the point of a tower except that? The tower isn’t actually stopping people.”

Border Patrol union president Art del Cueto criticized the $145 million dollar expense that comes even as Homeland Security is revising how agents on the ground can accrue overtime. “That’s where the money should be going. The extra hours that they’re putting out there in the field,” del Cueto said.

He says there’s no replacement for having people in the field. “We’ve seen many times where a lot of this technology, it is helpful. It does work. However in the end, you’re still gonna need the agents to go out there and apprehend, be it drugs coming into the country, be it illegal aliens,” he said.

Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C., refused to be interviewed for this story. Late Friday, a spokeswoman for the agency who agreed to speak with KVOA as long as her name wasn’t used said Elbit Systems provided the best combination of technology for the integrated fixed tower system.

The Boeing Corp., which carried the lion’s share of the $1 billion spent on SBInet, said Boeing had tried to bid for the $145 million contract. Spokeswoman Rebecca Yeamans sent a statement that read, “The Boeing team is extremely disappointed by yesterday’s announcement that the contract for the Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT) program has been awarded to another team. We’re proud to have provided the only proven system like IFT that’s been operation for four years. We remain committed to our U.S. Border Patrol customer.”

Cong. Ron Barber, who approved a spending bill last month that includes two years of funding for the towers project, said in a statement to KVOA, “I will be monitoring the project’s first year and funding will be allowed for the second year only if the project meets established performance requirements, standards and expectations. I have seen firsthand the waste of taxpayer dollars and I am determined that will not happen with this project.”

The KVOA News 4 Investigators also asked Elbit Systems what it plans to do differently this time so that the project is run efficiently and taxpayer money isn’t wasted. The company did not respond to seven phone calls and emails asking for a response.


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