WASHINGTON - A powerful House Democrat on Thursday demanded an update from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on a project to build a high-tech border fence, saying that delays and setbacks in the Boeing-led program make its future unclear.
In a letter to Chertoff, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson sought more details on Boeing's contract, which has an estimated value of $933 million, to build a network of sensors and surveillance systems to monitor a portion of the U.S.-Mexico border. The program, called Secure Border Initiative, is meant to prevent illegal immigration.
"This project has been plagued by missed deadlines and unforeseen difficulties which in turn have resulted in retooled and severely downgraded expectations," the Mississippi Democrat wrote.
Chicago-based Boeing Co. initially set up the network on a 28-mile stretch of the border near Tucson, Ariz., work known as Project 28. The technology includes cameras and sensors mounted on towers and buried in the ground that can feed information to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.
But according to Thompson's letter, delays pushed back the implementation of Project 28 by eight months. Construction on two new sections in Arizona, totaling 53 miles of border, is expected to begin early next year, according to Customs spokeswoman Angela de Rocha. The department is in process of obtaining environmental permits for the new sections.
"We are moving forward with it," de Rocha said.
The Government Accountability Office earlier this week reported that the program is "ambiguous and in a continued state of flux," which makes it difficult to tell when and how the project will finally take shape. The GAO has suggested that a new contractor could take over if the administration is not pleased with Boeing's work.
Boeing spokeswoman Deborah Bosick said delays are "not due to any cost or performance issues on Boeing's part."
Plans originally called for the building of 670 miles of fencing on the border between Mexico and the U.S. by the end of the year. However, only 334 miles have been completed. Customs officials said earlier this month they plan to have the entire length of the project either under construction or under contract by year-end.
The Customs' division's head of the virtual fence program also has taken a new position within the agency. Gregory Giddens has moved to an executive position overseeing facilities management and engineering. He will be replaced by Mark Borkowski, a former NASA official, according to de Rocha, who would not comment on the reason for the change.
Shares of Boeing added 3 cents to $57.39 in afternoon trading.