Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Border Wall is Billion-Dollar Black Box So Far

Photo by Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Department of Homeland Security might be taking its time launching President Trump’s “big, beautiful wall,” but that’s probably not a bad thing considering the agency’s history of mismanaging acquisition projects, the absence of money appropriated by Congress, and the lack of approval from an internal review board to move the wall past the prototyping phase.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) received hundreds of submissions to its March 2017 Request for Proposals for concrete and see-through walls along the southwest border. CBP originally said not more than 20 companies would be selected to build prototypes of their designs, but that the final names and number of companies would not be publicly disclosed. Today at a press conference CBP said they selected four to eight companies but haven’t yet awarded contracts. However, preparations have reportedly commenced at the San Diego location where the prototypes will be built.

Trump is seeking nearly $1.7 billion in the Fiscal Year 2018 federal budget to begin construction on the wall. Though Trump originally said he wanted a 1,000-mile, 40-foot wall made of precast concrete slabs, which he claimed could be constructed for $8 billion, he’s now considering alternative plans. That might be due to the implausibility of his cost projections: An MIT study estimated the cost at around $40 billion; investment industry analysts placed it between $15 billion and $25 billion; and an internal Department of Homeland Security study reportedly pegged the cost at $21.6 billion. Trump directed DHS to use, to the extent permitted by law, “all sources of Federal funds” to get the wall going.

According to a recent report by the DHS Office of the Inspector General, a DHS board that keeps projects from wasting money by ensuring they follow best contracting practices hasn’t given the project the green light to move forward. A four-phase process, created in 2011 in response to the agency’s historical difficulty with completing projects on time and on budget, requires a review board to evaluate a project’s progress before allowing it to move on to the next phase. On March 20, the board permitted CBP to go ahead with creating prototypes for the border wall. However, the board has asked CBP for additional information on the border wall before the project can graduate to the phase of testing the options and moving into production.

Acting CBP Chief Carla Provost told the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee on June 13 that CBP was working to review prototypes by late summer and start construction in spring 2018 if the White House budget request for Fiscal Year 2018 is approved. CBP’s $14 billion request for FY 2018 reflects nearly a 30 percent increase for the agency over FY 2017 levels, the largest jump for any DHS agency, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) coming in second at a 21.6 percent increase. CBP is already working to replace fencing in several areas with the funding provided in the FY 2017 budget passed last month.

That increase is a potent lure for contractors, many of which have already invested in lobbying the government to ensure they get a piece of the pie. Lobbying Disclosure Act filings show 14 companies (such as Boeing, General Dynamics, and L-3 Technologies) spent hundreds of thousands in 2017 to lobby the government on the border wall, border security, or border infrastructure. Most of the companies specialize in sensors, surveillance cameras, and other high-tech security tools. Some of them have checkered histories with DHS, such as Boeing, which managed the disastrous Secure Border Initiative (SBI).

SBI was a 2005 effort launched by President George W. Bush and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff to build hundreds of miles of fencing along the border, including a “virtual” fence of cameras and sensors called SBInet. Congress signed on to the initiative in 2006 by passing the Secure Fence Act, which required DHS to construct 370 miles of pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers by the end of 2008. The project was outsourced to Boeing in a procurement arrangement known as Lead Systems Integration or “spiral” contracting, in which a company is responsible for not just hiring and managing subcontractors but also designing the project’s scope and requirements.

SBI was a case study in mismanaging a major federal infrastructure contract, and the new administration should review its lessons. Anomalies in this latest contracting process, such as the accelerated schedule and secrecy about bidders, indicates it may be headed in SBI’s direction. The Project On Government Oversight has learned from SBI and 35 years of investigating other contracting boondoggles that haste is the surest path to waste. Congress should also study history before it approves the White House’s budget request for the wall.