By Mary Orndorff Troyan
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Several expensive technology upgrades for federal agencies involved in border security are behind schedule and are impairing customs and immigration work, according to internal audits highlighted at a congressional hearing Tuesday.
For example, some border patrol employees are still having trouble seamlessly sharing data with other federal, state and local law enforcement officials, said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens.
Duncan said he found it "alarming" that Customs and Border Patrol workers aren't consistently sharing information with local law enforcement officers - or even other homeland security agencies - more than a decade after the Homeland Security Department was created "and billions of dollars (was) poured into securing our borders and preventing another Sept. 11th."
He made his comments at a hearing before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency, which he chairs.
Border patrol staff are coming up with workarounds "including assigning agents to perform duplicative data entry, instead of enforcement duties in the field, and operating standalone, non-approved" information technology, said Charles Edwards, the Homeland Security Department's deputy inspector general.
A Sept. 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office found one-third of the department's major information technology investments - worth about $1 billion last year alone - weren't meeting cost or schedule commitments.
David Powner, GAO's director of information technology management, cited inaccurate preliminary cost and schedule estimates, technical issues, changes in agency priorities and a lack of understanding of what users need.
"These investments are at risk of continued cost and schedule shortfalls" unless Homeland Security officials take corrective action, according to the GAO report.
The report also cites the Automated Commercial Environment/International Trade Data system, which is supposed to be a centralized, paperless data collection and screening system for all cargo from land, air, rail and sea. Three years ago it was on the White House Office of Management and Budget's list of 26 troubled federal IT projects, and it is behind schedule.
The system already has cost more than $3 billion over several years, according to prepared testimony from Margie Graves, deputy chief information officer for the Homeland Security Department. She said the agency has made major changes to how the program is run, who's involved in decision-making and how it's funded, and the "program is on the right course."
Homeland Security has 68 major IT projects under development at a cost of about $4 billion in 2012.
"There is still a ways to go to ensure that annual investment of $4 billion is yielding the near-term returns our country needs," Powner said.
Border security will be a major component of any comprehensive immigration reform plan Congress considers, likely this year. But lawmakers remain concerned about relying too much on technology to keep illegal immigrants and unsafe goods out of the country.
SBInet - the failed $1 billion attempt to create a virtual border fence - is a cautionary tale.
"We want to make sure we don't spend all this money and get five years down the road and the technology has changed," Duncan said in an interview after the hearing. "We want to make sure they don't have any more boondoggles. Let them understand that we're watching."