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Senators Knock DHS Nuclear Detection Office for Wasting Money, Time

By Martin Matishak

Global Security Newswire

(Sep. 16) -A truck pulls a shipping container through a portal radiation scanner at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2007. A U.S. Homeland Security Department office squandered years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing ineffective technology for spotting potential illicit nuclear material in U.S.-bound cargo, ranking lawmakers on a Senate committee said yesterday  (Joe Raedle/Getty Images). (Sep. 16) -A truck pulls a shipping container through a portal radiation scanner at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2007. A U.S. Homeland Security Department office squandered years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing ineffective technology for spotting potential illicit nuclear material in U.S.-bound cargo, ranking lawmakers on a Senate committee said yesterday (Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Homeland Security Department has wasted several years and nearly half a billion dollars attempting to develop and deploy the next generation of radiation detection monitors, leaders of an influential Senate panel said yesterday (see GSN, Sept. 13).

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine) also chastised the department for failing to prepare a strategic plan to prevent the smuggling into the country of materials that could be used in a nuclear attack.

The plan, dubbed the global nuclear detection architecture, was first suggested by the Government Accountability Office in 2001. It is intended to close existing vulnerabilities and alert federal agencies to their roles in preventing terrorists from detonating a nuclear or radiological bomb within the United States.

Instead, the department’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office spent roughly five years and more than $400 million on two failed technology programs -- the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal monitor system and the Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System, the investigative agency said yesterday in a statement to the committee.

The document claims the description of progress in the cargo program used to support funding requests in nuclear office's budget documents was “misleading” because it did not accurately reflect the status of the program.

In total, the detection office has received about $4 billion over the last five years, with some of those funds going to expand existing programs at other DHS components. That included deploying 1,400 radiation portal monitors at U.S. points of entry in coordination with Customs and Border Protection, government auditors said in the report.

“Unfortunately, there is too much evidence that very little progress has been made with the funds that have been targeted to enhancing our current nuclear detection capabilities,” Lieberman said in his opening statement.

“I appreciate that designing a global system of systems, and coordinating the activities of agencies at other departments that are a part of that system, is a big challenge, but the threat is enormous here,” he added. “The size of the challenge therefore cannot explain away the failure of DNDO to develop a strategic plan for strengthening” parts of the domestic layer of the envisioned architecture.

Collins said that not nearly enough had been done to prevent a “nuclear 9/11.”

The detection office was established by presidential directive in 2005 to coordinate federal efforts to protect the United States against nuclear terrorism. It was also designated to be the lead agency in domestic nuclear detection.

The office spent roughly $230 million attempting to develop and field the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal system. The new machines were designed to not only detect radiation but identify the nature of its source. Proponents claimed the devices, each carrying a $822,000 price tag, would eliminate time-consuming secondary inspections to determine whether a material that set off alarms was indeed dangerous.

Homeland Security officials had planned to deploy 1,400 of the machines at a cost of roughly $1.2 billion. However, the system was found to be susceptible to false alarms and other significant technical troubles. In March the detection office said it would halt development of the monitors as a primary screening tool and would instead use them for secondary screening of cargo (see GSN, March 2).

The department also canceled the acquisition of the Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System, which would have been be used by Customs and Border Protection to detect and identify highly shielded nuclear material in vehicles and cargo containers in both primary and secondary inspection lanes at U.S. ports of entry.

The effort was nixed in 2007 after detection office officials met with their border protection counterparts and learned the agency did not want the devices because they would not properly fit in the primary inspection lanes, causing significant delays, the GAO statement says.

The Homeland Security Department was set up “to make sure the right hand knows what the left is doing, so to have this so basic a communication lapse is really discouraging and inexcusable,” Collins said.

The nuclear office has sought $13 million in the fiscal 2011 budget cycle to prepare a new detection blueprint for the next several years.

In a June report the accountability office suggested a comprehensive strategic plan against nuclear terrorism could involve installing radiation detection equipment at all U.S. border crossings and ports of entry; addressing vulnerabilities and risks; identifying the mix of detection equipment that would be at various entry points and when those devices would be deployed; and determining long-term detection needs.

The department's bad investments could have been avoided if it had completed its strategic plan first, the auditing agency said.

“This is sound advice but it apparently has not been followed by DHS or DNDO in making expensive decisions about the investment that they’re making here at home,” Lieberman said.

Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Jane Holl Lute, testifying before the panel, conceded the department had been perhaps “too aggressive in trying to field unproven technology.”

The 8-year-old department has also learned that “hope is not a method” and revamped its acquisition system to include extensive field testing before programs can move forward, she said.

The global nuclear detection architecture has been delayed, in part, because the detection office was without a permanent head until recently, according to Lute.

She said the department also recently established an interagency working group at the assistant secretary level to guide and complete the implementation of the strategic road map, which is already in draft form.

The plan would outline the agency s vision as well as its objectives for the architecture and performance metrics, according to Lute.

The strategy document would then be followed by an implementation plan that examines the existing domestic architecture and delves into greater detail about procedures, acquisitions, training techniques and other elements necessary to put the plan into effect, she said without giving a date for when the additional study would wrap up.

Lute said that while she could not give a precise date, she expects the detection plan to be delivered before the end of this calendar year.

That proposed time line did not sit well either lawmaker.

“We cannot wait another eight years or not even another eight months. The department must complete this plan now,” Collins said. She suggested that Homeland Security freeze all of its technology acquisitions until the plan is completed or risk “wasting millions more dollars.”

Lieberman urged Lute to submit the detection architecture to the panel sometime in November.

The new GAO statement also claimed that Homeland Security misled Congress about the Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System in recent budget justification documents. The department asserted that an ongoing testing campaign would lead DNDO officials to conduct a cost benefit analysis for the program, followed by rapid development of a prototype that would lead to a pilot deployment, according to auditors.

However, detection office leaders told the Government Accountability Office they canceled the acquisition and deployment portion of the effort in 2007 and decided against performing such an analysis.

“It is inconceivable to me that the department is still putting plans and money into its budget justifications for a program that it had decided to abandon in December 2007. How could that happen?” Collins asked.

“At a time when we are scrutinizing the budget, squeezing every dollar, if we can't rely on the credibility of the information provided by the department for a program that nearly three years ago was abandoned, that's very serious,” she later added.

Lute said she had not seen the GAO statement but noted that the cargo inspection effort had in fact transitioned back into research and development in 2007. She did not accept the auditing agency's characterization that the department had intentionally misled lawmakers.

Lieberman said he wanted the department s formal response to the accusation by next Wednesday.

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GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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