Despite being given hundreds of millions of dollars that past few years to deploy advanced scanners at ports of entries to screen vehicles entering the U.S., Customs and Border Protection (CBP) fell behind in the program due to planning miscues and hasn’t invested in new technologies to help automate the current manual reviews of images taken by the scanners, says a draft report by House appropriators.
The report also says that delays in purchasing the non-intrusive inspection (NII) equipment led CBP to not include under-vehicle imaging as part of the systems. The House Appropriations Committee blames the elimination of the requirement for the under-vehicle imaging on CBP underestimating the “associated civil works costs” for installing the equipment.
“This delay, short-sighted removal of under vehicle X-ray capabilities and failure to innovate CBP’s processes is inexcusable and must be immediately addressed by current DHS leadership,” says the report, which was released on Thursday. The House Appropriations Committee meets Friday morning to mark up the fiscal year 2023 spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security.
In FY ’19, Congress appropriated $594 million for CBP to acquire large-scale NII systems to dramatically increase the number of vehicles scanned for potential threats and contraband as they enter the U.S. at land ports of entry. CBP responded with two programs, including the low-energy portal (LEP) to screen passenger vehicles with their occupants still inside as they drive-through an inspection point in a pre-primary inspection lane.
The multi-energy portal (MEP) program was created to be able to also screen trucks and tractor-trailers as they drive into the primary inspection lanes by scanning the cab at a low energy level that is safe for the occupants and then automatically switching to a higher energy level for the cargo carrying portion of the vehicle.
In 2021, CBP awarded a potential $390 million multi-award contract to Astrophysics, Leidos [LDOS] and OSI Systems [OSIS] to compete for the LEP work and a potential $480 million multi-award contract to Leidos, OSI Systems and Britain’s Smiths Detection to compete to provide MEP systems.
“It was the vision of Congress to revolutionize the existing inspection process at POEs by moving nonintrusive inspections to preprimary lanes and employ artificial intelligence, machine learning, and autonomous processes to not only streamline searches for drugs and contraband, but also to substantially increase security,” the draft report says.
Given the lack of investment in the automation technologies, the appropriators propose to rescind $30 million of the FY ’22 appropriations for NII equipment to be allocated toward “the innovations first planned over four years ago,” the committee says. It also prohibits spending of any of the rescinded funds until CBP provides Congress with a “plan focused on the adoption of innovative processes and technologies to scan and catalogue images, freeing up scarce CBP Officers to perform other needed tasks.”
The draft report from the appropriators highlights that the goal of the FY ’19 funding for NII systems, which has been added to in subsequent years, was to go from inspecting 1 percent of privately owned vehicles to 40 percent, and 6 percent of commercial vehicles to 72 percent.
In May, a CBP official told a different House committee that CBP still expects to reach these target levels in FY ’23. Pete Flores, executive assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Field Operations, also told the House Homeland Security Committee that in FY ’21 less than 2 percent of passenger vehicles and 15 percent of commercial vehicles were screened by NII systems in primary lanes along the southwest border.
The House appropriators are also recommending $50 million for the NII program in FY ’23. CBP didn’t request any funds. The House proposals will have to be reconciled with Senate appropriators, who haven’t introduced a DHS funding bill yet.