By Stephen Dinan
The Washington Times
Monday, January 6, 2014

The government’s chief watchdog said Monday that the Homeland Security Department is in danger of another billion-dollar technology boondoggle, adding that the immigration agency’s effort to upgrade the database for security checks at the U.S. border already has missed deadlines and appears to be veering off course again.

“After spending millions of dollars and over 4 years on TECS modernization, it is unclear when it will be delivered and at what cost,” the Government Accountability Office said in a scathing report about the TECS system,

The auditors warned that both U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection — the two immigration agencies that chiefly use and operate TECS — are far behind and said that given the lack of details in the official project schedule, it’s impossible to know whether the project can get back on track.

The GAO also said that the project manager may have been misleading Homeland Security officials trying to oversee the upgrades, meaning those assigned to oversee the project may be relying on incomplete and inaccurate data.

The Homeland Security Department has a troubled history with big technology-based projects, including canceling SBInet in 2011 after hundreds of millions of dollars had been sunk into the network designed to coordinate personnel, infrastructure and technology on the southern border.

In the case of TECS, CBP is in the middle of a $724 million modernization while ICE’s modernization is pegged at $818 million, all designed to upgrade obsolete technology and handle problems such as search algorithms that don’t match names from foreign alphabets.

GAO did give the agencies credit for beginning to impose good-management practices. But investigators said given the problems with the upgrades, it’s “unclear whether these programs are on track to deliver planned functionality by September 2015.”

Sen. Tom Coburn, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the report should ring alarm bells.

“Today’s GAO report provides another illustration of how DHS spends more taxpayer dollars and gets less for the American people,” Mr. Coburn said. “The failure of DHS to effectively manage modernization of the TECS system in a timely and fiscally responsible manner calls into question the department’s ability to deliver needed capabilities to the front lines on time and on budget.”

He said having both ICE and CBP try upgrading the same system has led to duplication, including one instance where CBP managed to deploy some new functionality but ICE, which had spent $19 million on a separate program, is now scrapping its effort and starting over.

In its official response to the report, Homeland Security said it thought GAO investigators were being too harsh in not recognizing “some of the significant progress” CBP has made in its modernization efforts.

Jim H. Crumpacker, the department’s liaison with GAO, said their management team has grown in size and “matured processes,” and that an upgraded secondary inspection system has already been successfully rolled out at the ports of entry.

Mr. Crumpacker said they do need to take more steps to make sure the ICE modernization is being managed properly.

He disputed GAO investigators’ call for a more complete schedule, saying Homeland Security believes its current plans give enough details for effective oversight.