Nuclear Scans' Effectiveness Questioned
Did DHS Mislead Congress About Effectiveness?
ROBERT O'HARROW, Jr. / Washington Post 20jul2007
WASHINGTON — A $1.2 billion program to deploy new radiation monitors to screen trucks, cars and cargo containers for signs of nuclear devices has been delayed by questions over whether Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials misled Congress about the effectiveness of the devices.
A year ago, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the contracts for monitors with cutting-edge technology that he said would improve radiation scans at borders and ports, while sharply reducing the number of false alarms. Congress had allowed the five-year project to move ahead after the department assured appropriators that the $377,000 machines would detect highly enriched uranium 95 percent of the time.
"What this next generation of detection equipment is going to let us do is make those determinations much more precisely, much more easily, and much more quickly," Chertoff said.
But the department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) did not know whether the detectors would work effectively, according to documents and interviews.
Auditors from the Government Accountability Office later found that the detection rates of machines tested by the department were as low as 17 percent and no higher than just over 50 percent. The auditors said the department's optimistic report to Congress on the cost and benefits of the machines was based on assumptions instead of facts, a finding that prompted lawmakers to put the project on hold last year.
Last week, the GAO told Congress that Homeland Security officials did not follow their own guidelines for ensuring that the cost-benefit report was accurate and complete. The GAO also said the director of the nuclear detection office was incorrect when he testified in March that the office was not aware of any specifics about whether officials followed the guidelines. A GAO official said auditors would release a report about the monitors next month.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said Congress will continue pressing officials for more verifiable details about the monitors before they allow the project to proceed.
"As DHS develops costly new technology critical to the nation's security, Congress must be able to rely on DNDO's claims about the technology," Lieberman said in an e-mailed statement. "DNDO's estimates of costs and benefits must be based on facts, not assumptions. And, while taking into account the effects this technology will have on commerce, it must be based first and foremost on how best to prevent nuclear smuggling."
Vayl Oxford, director of the nuclear detection office, defended the high detection rate cited in the report to Congress last year as a "high-water goal" the agency hoped to achieve, not an assessment of the monitors' capabilities. Oxford said recent tests of the monitors in New York show a "dramatic decrease" in false alarms. He said eight monitors will be deployed at four border crossings and ports for further performance tests this week.
The monitors were envisioned as the nation's key bulwark against attacks with radioactive material. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the government spent more than $200 million on detection equipment that could not distinguish nuclear devices from more benign sources of radiation, such as ceramic tiles and cat litter.
President Bush directed the establishment of the nuclear detection office in 2005 to be the main resource for assessing and buying monitors. Its mission includes providing technical advice to other agencies.
The office immediately began testing machines that, according to GAO estimates, cost about six times as much as current monitors. The Advanced Spectroscopic Portal radiation monitors rely on sensitive detection technology that had not previously been used in the field in the way officials envisioned.
Homeland Security officials tested monitors made by 10 companies. But before the results of those tests were made available to Congress, auditors from the GAO, in March 2006, raised questions about the procurement process.
The auditors predicted cost overruns of as much as $596 million and said the "prototypes of this equipment have not yet been shown to be more effective than the portal monitors now in use." The auditors concluded that it "is not clear that the dramatically higher cost of this equipment would be worth the investment."
In response, Congress told Chertoff and officials at the nuclear-detection office to produce a cost-benefit analysis.
In June 2006, the department delivered a report that said that the new machines "can correctly detect and identify highly enriched uranium (HEU) 95 percent of the time," according to the GAO.