Technology needed to guard against terrorist infiltration is not reaching the Arizona border, and a top regional official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security says the reason is federal bureaucrats have misspent money reserved for that purpose.
As much as $60 million that Congress approved for wireless communications technology used by federal security agencies has been spent on bureaucratic expenses that have nothing to do with the program, said Charles Cape, the zone manager for the agency’s wireless initiative in the Southwest, which includes Arizona.
That has left the nation’s southern border vulnerable and hindered efforts to ensure all federal, state, tribal and local agencies can communicate in the event of an attack, Cape said.
Congress allocated $100 million specifically for the national wireless initiative at homeland security in 2004 and $86 million this fiscal year, which runs until October, according to congressional appropriations reports and agency officials.
But none of that money has reached Arizona, said Cape. "I’ve never seen one dollar since I’ve been out here," said Cape, 64. "There’s nothing. They’ve sucked it all up at headquarters."
Cape has filed complaints with the department’s inspector general and the independent Office of Special Counsel, seeking investigations into whether money designated for wireless technology has been misspent.
Members of Arizona’s congressional delegation said they were not aware of Cape’s allegations until they were contacted by the Tribune. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., had his staff contact Cape for more information after Hayworth was interviewed by the Tribune.
Homeland Security officials would not comment on Cape’s allegations.
Cape, who was put in charge of the region in June 2004, said he grew frustrated after he learned money was not available for basic systems that would greatly enhance security at the border with Mexico. When he began checking on why no money was available, he learned it had already been spent for other projects in violation of congressional directives, he said.
In an e-mail exchange last January with a top Homeland Security administrator who has knowledge of the wireless budget, Cape warned that misspending the money reserved for wireless systems "has set up the Dept. for possible failure and has in my opinion not served the country well."
The Tribune agreed to Cape’s request to withhold the name of the administrator. Cape said the individual has tried to stop the misspending, and had no way of knowing the e-mail would be turned over to the media when it was sent.
"I don’t know where you get your intel from, but you are correct about the ’04 money . . . not good," the administrator replied. "I have been trying to tell our bosses that the wireless money is intended for TACTICAL COMMUNICATIONS . . . not (Department of Homeland Security) infrastructure or some other (information technology) projects. In my opinion, the redirection of wireless monies is exactly why all of our tactical wireless systems are 15 and 20 years old . . . and our guys and gals in the field can’t do their jobs."
Cape said the $60 million figure is based on his analysis of the fiscal 2004 budget, which ended last October. He added he has not received any money this year and has yet to hear whether funds will be available when the new fiscal year starts in a few months.
Among the programs Cape says were funded out of the wireless appropriation, contrary to specific direction from Congress, is about $12 million for the Homeland Secure Data Network. The network is supposed to allow federal, state and local agencies involved in homeland security to have secure access to classified information.
The agency’s inspector general, Richard Skinner, concluded in a report issued in April that the network was designed without adequate consultation of those who would use it, and had not undergone the necessary testing to ensure it is secure.
As a result, Skinner said there is no assurance that the network "will satisfy users’ functional and security needs, and adequately protect classified information."
Cape said he has been pushing for immediate acquisition of proven systems that would improve border security since he was assigned to the region. That would put the money on the front lines, as Congress intended, he said.
"By applying technology, it bolsters our chances of stopping terrorists at the border and it provides security for law enforcement folks who are out there," he said. "If we can apply technology and capture (terrorists) before they get out of this area, then all the better for us as a nation. Delaying just leaves us vulnerable and it’s just going to get more expensive."
Cape, who retired from the Army in 1980, has spent the last 16 years as a senior federal executive in charge of wireless technology and telecommunications in several agencies. Before his assignment in Arizona, he worked directly for former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, until health problems forced Cape to take a new job.
Last year, Cape was put in charge of building a wireless communications network for Homeland Security agencies in the southwestern region, which includes Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Oklahoma.
The wireless network would include components as simple as ensuring reliable service for handheld radios used by U.S. Border Patrol agents and as complex as integrating sophisticated radar, sensors and cameras used to detect illegal border crossings.
Cape said his assignment in Arizona had two components. His first job was to determine what could be done immediately, using wireless technology, to safeguard the borders against terrorist infiltration. Cape also was to develop a communications system that would allow federal agencies to coordinate communications with state and local police and fire departments, he said.
Local agencies would be the first to respond to a terrorist attack. It is critical that they be able to communicate with federal agencies that also will get involved, Cape said. Until recently, different federal agencies lacked even the ability to communicate with one another, Cape said. Though that problem has largely been solved in the region, their ability to coordinate communications with state, local and tribal agencies is still spotty, he said.
Cape said that when he was sent to Arizona, he anticipated $20 million would be available for immediate fixes. After his initial assessment, he concluded three proven technologies should be deployed immediately to aid the Border Patrol, he said. They included:
• A system sold by Chandlerbased Space Data Corp. that uses weather balloons to carry radio repeaters to ensure Border Patrol officers in remote areas can always get reliable service. There are many canyons along the border where radios relying on groundmounted repeaters cannot get a signal, said Cape. That assessment was backed by a Border Patrol spokesman in Tucson. The balloons, which hover between 65,000 and 80,000 feet, would ensure reliable radio service from anywhere, said Tim Ayers, a spokesman for the company. Since the radio signal travels up to the balloon, it is not affected by terrain, Ayers said.
• Wireless computer terminals in Border Patrol cars, similar to those used by local police departments. The Border Patrol does not have the terminals in its vehicles, said Gustavo Soto, spokesman for the agency’s Tucson office.
• A wide-area radar system that detects and tracks movements in any direction. Designed by Sensor Technologies & Systems, Inc., in Scottsdale, the system is already being used at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma. The Marines use it to check areas on the Barry M. Goldwater Range to ensure there are no people in an area before bombs are dropped during training missions. Soto said his agents frequently are called after the Marines have detected illegal immigrants on the range.
Each unit costs about $100,000, depending on the specifications, said Walker Butler, president and chief executive of Sensor Technologies.
Its range is about three miles in every direction, depending on the terrain, he said. The Border Patrol does not have the wide-area radar system, Soto said.
"Any type of technology that is out there that would help our agents do a better job is something we would always welcome and would like to have," Soto said.
In his complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative agency, Cape says the person who controls spending for the wireless initiative is Lee Holcomb, chief technology officer at the agency. Holcomb did not respond to a request for an interview left on his voice mail.
"These procurements have not effectively improved the security of our nation’s borders or safety of law enforcement personnel along our borders," Cape wrote in his complaint. "Use of these funds have seriously harmed the ability of DHS to provide new wireless service to protect the borders of the United States, in particular the Southwest border, and have increased the possibility of (a) terrorist entering the nation."
Members of Congress contacted by the Tribune said that if Cape’s assertions prove true, it would show those on the front lines of protecting the nation’s borders are not well-served by their agency administrators in Washington.
Hayworth said that with too few agents on the border, it is critical that technology be deployed in the field. Border agents should at least have the same technical capabilities as a local police department, things such as reliable radio service and wireless computers in their cars, Hayworth said.
"This is deadly serious," Hayworth said. "My immediate concern is that money that is meant for our borders — not only our homeland security but our home state security — is being frittered away. When this is left in a situation of bureaucratic inertia or feeding the bureaucratic spending monster in D.C., it’s cause for serious alarm. We had better get to the bottom of this."
Sen. Jon Kyl and Rep. John Shadegg, Arizona Republicans, issued written statements in response to requests for interviews. Kyl and Shadegg have long touted the need to deploy technology to help secure the borders.
They said that while they could not comment specifically on Cape’s allegations they believe it is critical that money meant for border technology is properly spent.
If Cape’s allegations prove true, "it is a disservice to the federal, state and local law enforcement agents charged with protecting our nation," Shadegg said. "Improving communications along the border is critically important to our nation’s security."
Kyl said deploying wireless technology is "critical to controlling the border."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., did not respond to requests for an interview.
Cathy Deeds, spokeswoman for the Office of Special Counsel, said she could not comment on an open investigation, or even confirm whether a complaint had been filed.
Larry Orluskie, spokesman for Homeland Security’s office in charge of the wireless program, said he could not comment on any allegations involved in an inspector general’s investigation.
The reason Cape agreed to discuss his allegations with the Tribune is that he has gone through channels within the bureaucracy, and nothing seems to be getting done, he said.
"This is more important than me," Cape said. "This is more important than my job. This is about the country. All I want to do is get the job done so that we can secure the borders through technology and bring some semblance of order to this communications situation. That’s what I was sent down here to do and that’s all I want to do."