A critical network of cameras and sensors installed for the U.S. Border Patrol along the Mexican and Canadian borders has been hobbled for years by defective equipment that was poorly installed, and by lax oversight by government officials who failed to properly supervise the project's contractor, according to government reports and public and industry officials.
The problems with the $239 million Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS), which U.S. officials call crucial to defending the country against terrorist infiltrators, are under investigation by the inspector general of the General Services Administration.
That probe, into whether government officials allowed the contractor to cut corners on the project and receive huge overcharges during its eight-year lifetime, could lead to administrative or criminal charges, the officials said. Perhaps tens of millions of dollars were wasted, the GSA suggested.
Many irregularities were documented in a scathing GSA inspector general's report, released in December, which cited millions of dollars in potential overcharges by the contractor, International Microwave Corp. (IMC), as well as the record of U.S. officials paying for work never performed.
The investigation focuses in part on IMC's employment of the daughter of Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), a former Border Patrol official and key backer of the system of 12,000 sensors and several hundred cameras installed for the Border Patrol between 1998 and last year, officials said. There is no indication that Reyes took part in any impropriety, they said....
Many of the ISIS cameras, which are placed on 50- to 80-foot poles, break down frequently. The wiring of the electronic system on the Canadian border with Washington is so slapdash that cameras there often jerk randomly in warm weather.
"The contractor sold us a bill of goods, and no one in the Border Patrol and INS was watching," said Carey James, the Border Patrol chief in Washington state until 2001. "All these failures placed Americans in danger."
Controversy about the project led U.S. officials to stop almost all work on ISIS about 16 months ago, officials said.
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security, now the parent of the Border Patrol, acknowledge that there were serious technical and oversight problems with the ISIS program.
Homeland Security officials say the ISIS network of cameras and sensors is helpful in spotting intruders and guiding border agents in hot pursuit, but needs to be expanded. It covers only a few hundred miles of the 6,500-mile Canadian and Mexican borders, and can be evaded by crossing the border where there is no ISIS gear.
Roger Schneidau, who helps run the Border Patrol's electronic barrier programs, said that "there are sites in varying need of repair," but that in places where the equipment is available and working, "it's incredibly useful to agents."
Anthony Acri, IMC's president until 2003, said ISIS is well-built and was a good investment for taxpayers. He said oversight by U.S. officials was proper and effective. Acri said that the halt in work on ISIS "is very dangerous for our country."...
Waste and Dysfunction
The story of ISIS, designed to monitor the large swaths of the nation's borderlands that agents cannot physically protect, is a tale of wasted taxpayer money and bureaucratic dysfunction.
The GSA inspector general's report said official inattention to the system "placed taxpayers' dollars and . . . national security at risk." A GSA inspection of eight Border Patrol zones found that $20 million had been paid to IMC for work there but that none of its camera systems was fully operating.
Near Buffalo, IMC billed the government for 59 cameras but only four were installed, and in Naco, Ariz., unassembled high-tech gear was found lying in the desert, the report said. "No IMC personnel had been on-site since the equipment was delivered" in 2003, the report added.
The most troubled part of ISIS was in Washington state, where the more than 64 cameras fogged up in cold and rain and sometimes broke down completely, according to Border Patrol officials and the GSA report. IMC-hired workers had done such shoddy wiring of fiber-optic cable at junction boxes that Border Patrol operators couldn't control the cameras, according to the officials and documents. Electrical wires were found corroding under water in supposedly sealed concrete vaults, they said.
The GSA report found that IMC was paid about $1 million up front to install 36 poles to hold multiple cameras in Washington state, but in fact had installed only 32. Contract documents executed by both GSA and the company "misrepresented the work that was actually furnished," it said.
It was common, the GSA report said, for the government to pay IMC "for shoddy work . . . [or] for work that was incomplete or never delivered."...
The GSA inspector general's report also sharply criticized operations at a Border Patrol repair center in New Mexico staffed by two Border Patrol officials and 19 IMC employees. Many Border Patrol agents complained that repairs on the ISIS equipment they sent there took months to complete.
The GSA report said "little or no work" was done at the center in the previous year, even though IMC billed the government for $500,000 during that time. The report said millions of dollars in IMC overcharges might have occurred there....
Over the objections of Border Patrol officials, INS official Walter Drabik chose cameras distributed by a firm called ISAP. U.S. officials and contractors said IMC had bought the ISAP firm without disclosing it to U.S. officials. This allowed IMC to buy cameras from its own subsidiary, substantially increasing profits. Undisclosed self-dealing could be illegal....