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Andrew T. Gillies is Director of Communications at the Center for Audit Quality, an affiliate of the American Institute of CPAs, in Washington, DC. Based in Washington since 2002, he has also worked in editorial and communications roles at the Investment Company Institute, the World Bank, Forbes, and Vault.com. His policy-themed writing has focused on aerospace and defense, energy and environment, transportation, and financial services.

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 Forbes.com