Current Border Surveillance System Shows Little Success, DHS IG Says

By Calvin Biesecker

A system of sensors and cameras that was installed along certain parts of the nation's northern and southern borders to help catch illegal immigrants and drug smugglers as they cross into the U.S. has resulted in few apprehensions and a large number of false alarms that use up time of government agents, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told a House panel on Friday.

Moreover, the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS) not only wasn't completed, it doesn't work as intended, Richard Skinner, the DHS Inspector General (IG), told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Management, Integration and Oversight.

Of the data Skinner's office examined, "we determined that more than 90 percent of the responses to sensor alerts resulted in 'false alarms'--something other than illegal alien activity, such as local traffic, outbound traffic, a train or animals," Skinner said in his prepared remarks. "On the Southwest border, only 2 percent of the sensor alerts resulted in apprehensions; on the Northern border less than 1 percent of sensor alerts resulted in apprehensions."

Even though the Border Patrol claims that having ISIS means that agents don't have to respond to false alarms, Skinner said that since sensors can't distinguish between legal and illegal activity, and because not enough camera sites are working to be able to monitor an area where ground sensors have been triggered, agents end up investigating activities either way.

The ISIS program began in 1997 and a $2 million contract was awarded in 1999 to International Microwave Corp., which was acquired by L-3 Communications [LLL] in 2002. The original contract was limited in scope but eventually resulted in a $200 million blanket purchase order for hundreds of pole-mounted camera sites and a fewer number of other sites such as communications repeaters, many of which were never installed. Skinner said that as of August 2005, 255 camera sites were installed with 168 incomplete while 27 non-camera sites were operational and another 38 incomplete. The installed base provides coverage of about 5 percent of the northern and southern borders combined.

Once a ground sensor has been tripped the cameras are supposed to be linked so that one or more automatically look in the direction of the sensor. However, because the cameras and sensors are not linked, a Law Enforcement Communications Assistant, who sits in a command center with monitors, has to remotely maneuvers the video device toward the sensor and determine the reason for the alert.

The difficulties the Border Patrol, its parent agency Customs and Border Protection, and L-3 have had implementing ISIS have received close scrutiny from the House panel this year. In June the subcommittee heard testimony from the General Services Administration IG regarding poor contract oversight and mismanagement of the program (Defense Daily, June 17). Another hearing is planned in February.

This all comes as DHS is piecing together a new program, called the America's Shield Initiative (ASI), that is expected to be far more ambitious than ISIS in the amount of border it covers and network integration imagined. ASI is part of an even larger program rolled out in November by DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff called the Secure Border Initiative, which is an attempt to combine the technologies planned under ASI with others such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), along with new directions in policy aimed at making it easier to deport certain illegal immigrants while letting many others stay in the United States temporarily under a guest worker program (Defense Daily, Nov. 7).

Skinner said that since FY '97, the ISIS and ASI programs combined have received over $429 million. ASI was first rolled out in August 2004 but the program has been delayed as DHS sought to rework it into the SBI framework. A request for proposals for ASI is expected to be released early next year. Skinner said an award is slated for next September for a contractor that would be responsible for ASI systems integration.

Not only is ISIS incomplete, the amount of time it has taken to make sites operational has been lengthy, Skinner said. On average camera installations, mounted on towers averaging 70-feet tall, took 20 months he said.

Given that the first deployments of ASI are planned in FY '07, Skinner suggested that DHS has its work cut out.

"To meet the ambitious goals of ASI, a significant number of additional surveillance structures and supporting infrastructure will likely be required," Skinner said. "Once land access is obtained, environmental assessments will need to be performed for all sites considered for RVS (remote video surveillance) camera, repeater tower, and supporting power infrastructure installations." Some of these land access procedures could take months, he added, and could be further delayed by special interest groups opposing the towers.

Skinner also said that UAVs that will be used by the Border Patrol present certain challenges. Border Patrol officials told him that the unmanned aircraft cost more than twice the amount of money to operate than manned aircraft and that so far UAVs have resulted in few seizures of illegal aliens. However, these costs were based on leased UAVs as opposed to purchase ones, which Border Patrol maintains would be less expensive, he said. He said the leasing costs per hour for two UAVs the Border Patrol has operated so far are $1,351 for the Israeli Hermes and $923 for the Northrop Grumman [NOC] Hunter. The Border Patrol is purchasing a General Atomics-built Predator UAV.

UAVs also don't do as well in certain poor weather conditions, which can also limit their sensor packages, he said. Still, Skinner said the UAVs have a major advantage over manned aircraft in that they can stay airborne longer. As with the June hearing, subcommittee members, including Chairman Mike Rogers (R- Ala.), remain dismayed over what they said is "gross mismanagement" of the ISIS program.

[Copyright 2006 Access Intelligence, LLC. All rights reserved.]

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