Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Is Customs' ACE In The Hole?

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet shocked a lot of folks when he told the 9/11 commission recently that it would take another five years to build a truly integrated intelligence operation. Five years sounds like an awfully long time. But if you need an example of why Tenet, sadly, probably has the timetable right, take a look at the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection and its efforts to modernize.

In April 2001, Customs awarded a projected $1.3 billion, five-year contract to bring its technology for processing imports into the Internet era. Today, the new system, known as the Automated Commercial Environment, is up and running--but only partly. ACE's builders have yet to install a good chunk of its functionality; the project has suffered delays and now is supposed to be completed in 2007.

ACE also has money problems. Congress has appropriated $1.04 billion for the project since 2001, including $306 million for fiscal 2004. A source tells Forbes the latter sum fell about a quarter shy of what was needed.

What's going on here? The short answer is that creating technology to integrate various government functions means walking into a technological, management and political minefield. No one expected ACE to be easy--the project is a bit like rebuilding a street in midtown Manhattan, a section at a time, without ever stopping the flow of traffic. Customs' existing setup is a hodgepodge of various trade processing systems, each with its own acronym: the Automated Commercial System, the Automated Export System, the Border Release Advanced Screening and Selectivity, Customs Automated Forms Entry System, Free and Secure Trade and the Pre-Arrival Processing System.

Full story at