When bureaucrats commit to a cause, it can be difficult or impossible to reverse their course, even with overwhelming evidence that their actions will result in failure. When the person in charge of a project has a headline-worthy title, the refusal to acknowledge defeat can stretch out interminably, and the delay in halting useless spending can cost us lots of money.
Taxpayers fund a handful of agencies like the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that try to protect our dollars from the sort of never say quit behavior that wastes billions. We were warned for years that Homeland Security’s SBInet program had serious, perhaps insolvable problems, but those in charge pursued their commitment to failure with predictable results.
SBInet was sold to the public as a “critical component” 1 of the Secure Border Initiative program. In a press release announcing the SBInet contract awarded to Boeing, Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff played up a laundry list of program features and benefits, describing:
… an integrated mix of increased staffing, more robust interior enforcement, greater investment in detection technology and infrastructure, and enhanced coordination on federal, state, local and international levels.2
Beginning in 2005, Congress provided $3.6 billion for SBInet. Homeland Security anticipated spending $7.6 billion from 2007–2011 for the southwest border “acquisition phase.”3
The Government Accountability Office issued a stream of critical reports from 2007–2010. In February 2007, the GAO warned that we needed better project accounting in order to “… minimize the program’s exposure to cost, schedule, and performance risks.”4 The cost of 73 miles of SBInet fencing varied from $700,000 per mile in San Luis, Arizona, to $4.8 million in Sasabe, Arizona. The average price for taxpayers was $2.9 million per mile,5 enough to station $50,000 per year guards at 91 foot intervals along those miles we planned to fence.
The negative reports kept coming. In September 2008, a GAO report charged that “DHS Needs to Address Significant Risks in Delivering Key Technology Investment.” One year later, delays and problems deploying SBInet technology were reported. Costs were up. Customs and Border Protection planned to spend another $110 million for a mere 10 miles of fencing.6 The program’s “tactical infrastructure” was also under scrutiny, because Customs and Border Protection’s bass-ackwards approach to project planning never confirmed that SBInet technology would even make a difference:
Until CBP determines the contribution of tactical infrastructure to border security, it is not positioned to address the impact of this investment.7
January 2010 brought this damning assessment:
From March 2008 through July 2009, about 1,300 SBInet defects have been found, with the number of new defects identified generally increasing faster than the number being fixed—a trend that is not indicative of a system that is maturing.8
Before Homeland Security finally threw in the towel, the GAO released “DHS Needs to Reconsider Its Proposed Investment in Key Technology Program.” The report sounded the death knell for SBInet:
… it remains unclear whether the department’s pursuit of SBInet is a cost effective course of action, and if it is, that it will produce expected results on time and within budget.9
It took another eight months, but Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano announced the demise of SBInet in January 2011.
There are people in Washington who do good work. They are not the people who make self-important speeches, or who twist and confuse events like the Tucson shootings as an excuse to get behind microphones. They are the people who work hard to warn us when Washington makes mistakes, and who suggest ways to correct those mistakes. In the case of SBInet, the GAO’s warnings did not stop the bureaucratic insistence that we proceed with a project doomed to failure. How many other programs are we funding that will meet the same end, and why do we not listen to those who tell us when the time has come to stop?