Over the weekend, the Center for Investigative Reporting partnered with Politicsdaily.com to examine a Bush-era program called the Secure Border Initiative designed to enhance control of the nation’s southwest boundary with Mexico. A high-tech component known as SBInet became central to the initiative.

Today, SBInet is under fire by lawmakers for scheduling setbacks and cost overruns. As we explain in the story, however, SBInet is only the nation’s latest attempt to seal the border with modern, sophisticated technology. Another program launched during the Clinton Administration called the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, or ISIS, promised digital eyes and ears that would extend the reach of border patrol agents.

While working on the story, we obtained a blistering December 2004 audit of ISIS that wasn’t readily available to the public and describes questionable contracting practices as well as serious concerns government watchdogs had about the quality of equipment being delivered. There were even allegations that workers at one site did little or nothing for up to a year. You can read the report in its entirety below or download it at a link provided there.

First, auditors found that the International Microwave Corporation was awarded $43 million worth of contract work for ISIS by the General Services Administration “without benefit of competition,” meaning taxpayers were possibly denied value and quality since the private sector wasn’t required to fully compete for the government business involved.

That’s not all. During testimony in 2005 before a House homeland security subcommittee, a deputy inspector general for the GSA explained technical shortcomings in the surveillance equipment itself and said in one instance taxpayers may have forked over $6.5 million more than necessary for thermal imaging cameras that were cheaper than promised.

Elsewhere, auditors discovered an equipment maintenance and operations support center in New Mexico where “little or no work was performed” for a year even though $6.7 million was required to operate the facility between 2000 and 2003. The report we’ve posted today states that nearly half the surveillance cameras purchased by the border patrol could not be serviced by the center mostly due to warranty issues. Despite several people working at the New Mexico facility – both contractors and government employees – many cameras were sent to the original manufacturer for repair instead, the report said. As of 2005, the government had spent approximately $340 million on ISIS and a short-lived program that followed it before the Secure Border Initiative was unveiled.

Audit of the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System

According to the deputy inspector general’s 2005 testimony:

We found locations where no equipment had been delivered and no work was underway for as long as two years after issuance of the task orders. In other locations, equipment had been delivered but not installed, or had been installed but was not operational, with cameras and other equipment not functioning or having continuing reliability problems. We found parts laying on the desert floor and in storage adjacent to border patrol property. We also found that the contractor ordered and billed the government for equipment that sat in warehouses sometimes for years.

A company official from L-3 Communications, which acquired the International Microwave Corporation in late 2002, admitted at the hearing that the contract began small but later ballooned, “taxing seriously the management capacity of both IMC and the administering government office.” He nonetheless defended the program arguing that nearly 250 sites with daytime and nighttime cameras were ultimately installed, and where adequately tended to, “this system is operational today.”

The official also vigorously denied allegations by the GSA’s inspector general of wrongdoing calling many of the claims unfounded and stating that L-3 Communications sought to correct the record yet wasn’t allowed to answer the December 2004 report. “We are here today because we take our partnership with the government seriously and have a deep sense of responsibility for the continued performance of the [remote video surveillance] program,” he said.

L-3 Communications later became a subcontractor for SBInet. The Boeing Co. is its primary contractor.

We’re also posting C-SPAN video from Republican Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama who chaired the 2005 subcommittee hearing and describes his frustration with the progress of ISIS at a time when the federal government was deploying the Secure Border Initiative. In the video, Rogers discusses a bill he proposed in 2006 to enforce financial accountability over the initiative, but the legislation never made it out of the House. The video is below. According to Rogers during the hearing:

[The Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System] has been plagued by mismanagement, operational problems and financial waste. On June 16, 2005, our subcommittee heard from the GSA deputy inspector general that electronic surveillance equipment covered only two to four percent of the border and that over $200 million was paid by the federal government for poor, incomplete and never-delivered goods and services. At our second hearing on Dec. 16, 2005, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general testified that cameras and sensors were not integrated, oversight of contractor performance was ineffective, numerous poles and cameras were never even installed on the border, and millions of program dollars remained unspent in accounts at the GSA.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) on the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, or ISIS.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.