Aug. 27--WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is expected next month to choose an industry consortium to erect a high-tech security shield along the U.S. borders, launching one of the federal government's most ambitious public-works projects in years.
The Department of Homeland Security calls the proposed Secure Border Initiative Net the "most comprehensive effort in the nation's history" to gain control of more than 6,000 miles of border with Mexico and Canada as well as 2,000 miles of coastline.
SBInet is a centerpiece of President Bush's efforts to fortify the porous U.S.-Mexico border at a time when Congress is locked in a struggle to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. Administration officials say they intend to proceed with the security net regardless of the outcome of the debate over immigration legislation.
The multibillion-dollar undertaking has ignited an intensely fought contract battle among industry teams headed by four leading defense companies -- Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon -- and Ericsson, the Swedish-based telecommunications giant with U.S. headquarters in Plano, Texas.
Collectively, the teams are composed of nearly 40 companies in more than 15 states, a broad and diverse lineup that includes global engineering firms, niche industries adept at biometric identification or surveillance, and blue-ribbon aerospace corporations that are better known for churning out warplanes, tanks and missiles.
Among the states vying for a piece of the action are California, Missouri, Florida, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman's teammates include HNTB Corp., a nationwide engineering and architectural firm headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., and Identix, a top-tier biometric company in Minnetonka, a suburb of Minneapolis.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a branch of the DHS, is expected to announce a winner by Sept. 30.
As envisioned by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, SBInet would marry industry expertise with the 42,000-employee Customs and Border Protection to create a wall of technology, manpower and infrastructure over the next six years. The initial cost is projected at $2.5 billion, but the price ultimately could be much higher.
Although Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Michael P. Jackson told industry officials that the project is "not about simply buying gizmos," much of the attention has focused on the potential mix of technology. Most of the proposals include state-of-the-art sensors, mounted cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles, radar and other surveillance hardware.
Calls for toughening the border have intensified with the approach of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the recent alleged terrorist bomb plot in Britain. But the project has come under heightened scrutiny on Capitol Hill after a congressional report last month blasted DHS procurement polices.
The bipartisan report, released by Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Government Reform Committee, identified $34.3 billion worth of DHS contracts marred by significant overcharges, wasteful spending or mismanagement. The troubled projects included a largely ineffective camera-surveillance system along the Mexican and Canadian borders.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., complained that SBInet could be exposed to the same problems, contending that the DHS is giving industry too much latitude in determining how the system should be tailored. "That's not governing," he said. "It's utter incompetence, and it's going to cost the taxpayers billions."
From the bidders' vantage point, SBInet could create thousands of jobs and underscore the defense industry's expanding transition into homeland security. Tools of war -- such as radar and satellite surveillance -- easily can be redirected into the campaign to guard the home front.