WASHINGTON — A much-touted, high-tech system being tested along the border with Mexico failed to meet expectations and is being reworked, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday. Still, he said, border security has improved dramatically.
Chertoff said that SBInet, which integrates cameras, radar and unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor the border, did not satisfy his department during initial tests and that he has asked Boeing, the contractor, to make improvements.
The remarks came during a wide-ranging and occasionally contentious hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security to discuss the department's progress in implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
There were questions on the safety of government-provided trailers used by Hurricane Katrina victims and terrorism -- specifically programs to track foreign students and screen air cargo -- a reflection of the agency's broad mandate.
Lawmakers also asked Chertoff a personal question: Would he leave the Department of Homeland Security to take the helm of the Justice Department, replacing outgoing Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales?
Chertoff's reply: "I'm happy to continue to do this job until the very last day of the administration."
Some exchanges were more barbed, with Democratic lawmakers complaining about what they described as DHS' lack of transparency and its reluctance to cooperate with congressional oversight.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) grilled Chertoff on the agency's handling of air cargo inspections, denouncing the program as a "shambles."
Holding up a redacted report by the DHS inspector general, Markey said it was a "blistering, scalding indictment of the department's handling . . . of cargo inspection on passenger planes."
Congress recently passed a law requiring 100% screening of the cargo placed on passenger aircraft. The report found that the Transportation Security Administration, a branch of DHS, may not be accurately reporting information about its inspections to Congress. It also found that TSA is not able to ensure that air carriers and shippers are following the rules, and that TSA inspectors are poorly trained.
Markey questioned the "double standard where all of our bags are screened, all of our computers are looked at, all of our shoes are taken off, but on the same plane goes cargo that has not been screened."
Citing his own flight back to Washington, Markey said: "My bags were checked for a bomb. The cargo is not checked for a bomb."
Chertoff said the agency was committed to 100% screening, using a combination of government inspectors and the private sector -- including shippers who would check their own packages before they are put on wooden pallets and shrink-wrapped. The shippers would be subject to inspection by the government or "disinterested third parties," Chertoff said.
But this scenario worried lawmakers. "If you're basically saying that the shippers have to check their own cargo, then I get a little concerned," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). "Mr. Markey has my attention."
Chertoff outlined progress at the border, saying that the agency employs 14,471 Border Patrol agents, up from 9,000 on Sept. 11, 2001. He said the agency is on track to have 18,300 agents by the end of 2008. By that time, 370 miles of fencing will stretch along the border, up from 120 miles, Chertoff said.
He mentioned the introduction of 10-print fingerprint scanning for foreigners traveling to the U.S. and increases in arrests of employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Those developments have had an impact, the secretary said. He cited a 20% drop in the number of illegal immigrants apprehended along the border -- a sign that fewer are able to get across, department officials say.
But Chertoff said that the SBInet system, part of the administration's Secure Border Initiative, had to be reconfigured because initial tests showed it wasn't performing well enough.
The system is important to the administration, which has faced fierce criticism from members of the president's party for not being aggressive enough about border security. Many conservative Republicans believe the only way to stop people from crossing the border is to build a solid physical barrier; they distrust the administration's use of both technology and fencing. The administration argues that approach is necessary in areas where it is impossible or impractical to build fences.
A 28-mile section of SBInet, built along the Arizona border, was supposed to be tested and ready to go in July. But DHS officials were not satisfied with how elements of the system worked together, Chertoff said, leading to a series of "frank and candid conversations" with Boeing.
DHS is waiting for the company to present a reworked system. Chertoff said he expects to begin testing next month and finish by the end of the year.
He said the agency would reject the system if it didn't perform.
"I am not going to buy something with U.S. government money," he said, "unless I'm satisfied it works in the real world."