The Department of Homeland Security invested $20 million in the contest to build prototypes for President Trump’s border wall, only to discover that most of them were impractical for the tough terrain along the U.S.-Mexico line, the government’s chief watchdog said Monday.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency overseeing the project, also cut corners in deciding where to build the first miles of the wall last year and still doesn’t have a good method for evaluating the costs and benefits for where new segments should be built, according to investigators at the Government Accountability Office.
The findings, which come as Mr. Trump is threatening to shut down the government unless he gets a massive infusion of cash for more wall-building in Congress’ fiscal 2019 spending bills, could damage the White House’s efforts.
“To be blunt, this administration has no clue what it is doing and must be held accountable,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.
The administration said it is committed to construction and that the illegal flow of people and drugs has dropped dramatically where fencing has been erected.
“Walls have proven to be extremely effective at deterring illegal entries and the smuggling of illicit drugs into the United States,” said Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for the Homeland Security Department.
But in Monday’s report, CBP acknowledged that it felt “intense pressure to quickly yield results” in the months after Mr. Trump took office, which investigators said resulted in picking locations without giving them a full review.
The push, at Mr. Trump’s insistence, to hold a contest to pick a border wall design did less to identify what does work and more to point out strategies to avoid.
None of the eight designs was deemed project-ready.
All four concrete designs — ones Mr. Trump himself had touted — proved to be impractical in the rough borderlands, the GAO said. Two of the four non-concrete proposals were rated to have “extensive” challenges if they were to be adopted.
The government now says it won’t adopt any of the eight designs. Instead, officials said, they have learned lessons and will try to incorporate those into wall-building plans.
More broadly, Homeland Security still hasn’t come up with a way to minimize the risks of botching the project, auditors concluded.
“DHS plans to spend billions of dollars developing and deploying new barriers along the southwest border. However, by proceeding without key information on cost, acquisition baselines, and the contributions of previous barrier and technology deployments, DHS faces an increased risk that the Border Wall System Program will cost more than projected, take longer than planned, or not fully perform as expected,” the GAO said.
Ms. Waldman defended the government’s approach, saying planners first look to see where agents indicate more border barriers would help and then conduct a cost analysis.
“Americans deserve a secure border that protects our communities and keeps America safe, and this administration is doing so by constructing the first border wall in a decade,” she said.
The wall is set to face a legal challenge Tuesday when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hears oral arguments on a challenge brought by environmental groups and the state of California, which argue that the administration cut corners in approving waivers for the ongoing construction.
A lower court rejected the challenge this year, but the groups appealed.
They plan to rally outside the Pasadena, California, courthouse before the judges hear the case.
Homeland Security has devised a plan to add or update fencing along more than 700 miles of the 1,954-mile U.S.-Mexico border. At the end of the Obama administration, 354 miles were covered by some fencing and another 300 miles by vehicle barriers that allow people to step through but stop cars and trucks from barreling across.
The cost for building Mr. Trump’s wall is estimated at more than $20 billion, and the administration has struggled to win the money from Congress.
Lawmakers included $1.6 billion for construction in fiscal 2018. Mr. Trump is seeking a major increase for 2019.
The Senate’s current homeland security spending bill includes $1.6 billion. The House version includes $5 billion.
Mr. Thompson said all lawmakers should read the GAO report before agreeing to any more money, saying the funds are so mismanaged that they amount to “a gift to contractors and the president’s political base.”
Dan Millis, borderlands program manager for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said the report exposes a lack of rationale behind the wall.
“These Trump-era walls are an astronomically costly ripoff to American taxpayers, averaging nearly $18 million per mile!” he said. “The San Diego walls being built now are ridiculous since they are replacing one layer of two existing parallel walls, and the Rio Grande Valley walls would be even worse, walling Americans off from access to the Rio Grande, its parks, wildlife areas, riverfront property and even people’s homes.”
In an official response to Monday’s report, Jim H. Crumpacker, Homeland Security’s liaison to the GAO, disputed the finding that the department had cut corners in the usual procurement and cost-benefit analysis process — though he acknowledged “intense pressure” to get something accomplished.
“Despite an aggressive schedule and intense pressure to quickly yield results, we are committed to following sound acquisition practices and are focused on deliberative analysis to support our plans,” he wrote.
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