GAO: U.S. ports still vulnerable to nuclear 9/11

The nation’s ports and border crossings remain vulnerable to a nuclear 9/11 despite a $4 billion investment since 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on a number of programs aimed at preventing nuclear smuggling around the world, the General Accountability Office (GAO) found in a recent report.

The report said DHS has failed to develop a comprehensive strategy to defend the nation against nuclear threats from around the globe despite a 2008 admonition from Congress to do so.

GAO warns maritime cargo containers pose a particular threat because they are filled overseas and could be attractive targets for terrorists looking to sneak a nuclear weapon into the United States. According to a Sept. 2007 report on, such cargo containers account for 2 billion tons of freight, accounting for 95 percent of the nation’s overseas trade.

“I think this ought to raise a lot of eyebrows,” former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton told The Daily Caller. “That’s a lot of money to spend and not get any protection out of it.”

Senators similarly admonished DHS in a recent Senate hearing for failing to uphold its end of the bargain with the American people.

“Terrorists have made clear their desire to secure a nuclear weapon,” Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said at the Sept. 15 hearing. “Given this stark reality, we must ask: what has the department done to defend against nuclear terrorism on American soil? The answer, unfortunately, is not enough… not nearly enough.”

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), responsible for the domestic aspect of DHS’s nuclear terror deterrence, received approximately half of the $4 billion investment, which it spent deploying over 1,400 radiation monitors at the nation’s seaports and border crossings in conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

But these radiation monitors have a serious flaw: they can only detect radiation from lightly shielded radiation sources.

“If they’re not suitable, then obviously you can spend lots of money, and not get any protection, so it’s a legitimate problem,” Bolton said. “You need different technologies and different approaches, so if we’ve invested all of this money and we’re not solving all of those problems that should be of enormous concern.”

He continued, “I think the perfect storm is a rogue state like Iran or North Korea giving or selling a terrorist group like al-Qaida a weapon of mass destruction and having it brought into the United States. Imagine 9/11, but with one of these weapons. The effect would be enormous.”

The GAO report uncovered a bureaucratic nightmare involving DNDO and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which resulted in the failure to properly develop and deploy detection equipment that could detect radiation from heavily shielded sources.

DNDO began working shortly after its founding in April 2005 on what it called the Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System (CAARS) and the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP)  ̶  intended to automatically detect radiation from heavily shielded sources in a user-friendly fashion in order to screen cargo containers in the nation’s ports and border crossings.