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

John Rossomando Contributor
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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.

Agency management pushed the CAARS program  ̶  initially estimated to cost $1.5 billion  ̶  on a fast track for production and deployment, with the intent of having it operational in mid- to late 2009. DNDO has spent $400 million between the ASP and CAARS programs without any tangible results.

However, the tight project deadline proved fatal for the deployment of CAARS because much of the needed technology did not exist, and the development of essential software did not happen fast enough to warrant its deployment.

“Although algorithms (software) supporting the CAARS technology were technologically immature, DNDO created an aggressive production and deployment schedule that was to begin in August 2008, the end of DNDO’s planned development period for the CAARS program,” GAO wrote in its report.

DNDO decided in December 2007 to redefine CAARS as a research and development program and cancel its deployment.

“For a two-year acquisition program there was just too much development to get there in a reasonable amount of time,” Joel Rynes, a project manager, told Defense Daily in a July 3, 2008 interview.

A lack of communication between CBP and DNDO further compounded the program’s technological development problems and the rush for completion.

DNDO proceeded with CAARS development even though CBP officials said they opposed using the machines at seaports and border crossings because they would not fit in their inspection lanes and would cause significant delays.

According to the report, DNDO moved forward developing CAARS without direct CBP input on the project’s specifications because CBP did not respond to DNDO’s inquiries fast enough and because of looming deadlines.

Senators have also taken DNDO to task for including funding requests to Congress citing progress in the CAARS program for fiscal years 2009 through 2011 despite its 2007 decision to cancel its production phase.

Problems such as these are a common occurrence in the federal bureaucracy, said Cato Institute budget analyst Tad DeHaven.

“They are not subject to market forces and other controls, so they can screw up federal money,” DeHaven said. “There are not going to be any angry shareholders, and in most cases you are not going to lose your job, so the incentives for the federal government to efficiently and effectively procure goods … are poor.”

Not everyone, however, blames DHS or DNDO for the failures.

Heritage Foundation homeland security analyst Jena Baker-McNeill instead blames Congress for setting what she sees as an unrealistic goal of inspecting every container that passes through the nation’s ports and border crossings. Congress imposed the goal for political reasons without considering its practical implications, she said.

Baker-McNeill believes more emphasis should have been placed on increased intelligence aimed at intercepting nuclear smugglers abroad due to the volume of cargo that enters the country and limited resources.