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Border system under fire

Feb. 24, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
TECS helps border guards determine who should be allowed into the U.S.
TECS helps border guards determine who should be allowed into the U.S. (Gerald L. Nino / DHS)

Modernization of a key border enforcement system is making progress, a senior Customs and Border Protection manager said this month, seeking to rebut criticism from members of Congress and the Government Accountability Office.

CBP’s portion of the program has stayed within budget since it began in 2008, has achieved many milestones and is in “good overall health,” Charles Armstrong, chief information officer for the agency, said at a recent hearing of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on oversight and management efficiency.

The mainframe system, known as TECS (derived from Treasury Enforcement Communications System, a name that is no longer used), helps decide who should be allowed to cross into the United States. As such, it is one line of defense against terrorism. TECS is also used by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, David Powner, a GAO director of information technology management, said at the Feb. 5 hearing.

But the current system us also increasingly expensive to maintain, Powner said. CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are sharing responsibility for the $1.5 billion modernization program; both are part of the Department of Homeland Security.

The two agencies, but ICE in particular, waited too late to put a robust process for managing requirements and were also slow to anticipate risks, he said.

“We thought CBP should have been addressing scheduling and contractor risks and ICE should have been identifying the requirements, backlog and technical solution risks much better,” Powner said. Going forward, he added, the two agencies need to establish “a solid baseline” so lawmakers can clearly track spending and what is being received in return.

Thomas Michelli, CIO for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, acknowledged that the architecture at the heart of the proposed new system had been found last year to be technically inadequate. But ICE has since revamped the program to beef up top-level oversight, strengthen accountability and exploring other technical options, he said.

And by using commercial off-the-shelf products, ICE also expects the total price tag for its share of the TECS modernization to come in below the $818 million budget, Michelli said. ICE leaders have also adopted GAO’s recommendations for better tracking risks and managing changes to the project’s requirements, which he said have already been cut by 75 percent.

Powner applauded that reduction, but added that “a lot of this is coming too late.” CBP, which had earlier estimated the cost of its share of the project at $724 million, is revising that projection, Powner said, leaving the total pricetag for completion unclear at this point.

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