Contracting Rush For Security Led To Waste, Abuse

Radiation-detection machines screen trucks and cargo containers at ports and borders. The machines have trouble distinguishing between highly enriched uranium and common household products.
Radiation-detection machines screen trucks and cargo containers at ports and borders. The machines have trouble distinguishing between highly enriched uranium and common household products. (By Bob Mack -- Florida Times-union Via Associated Press)

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By Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 22, 2005

First of two articles

After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the U.S. government rushed to secure the nation. Billions of dollars were spent to protect Americans with improved passenger screening, bomb-detection machines at airports, radiation monitors at ports and computer networks to identify suspected terrorists at the borders.

Government leaders say the nation is safer than it was before Sept. 11, 2001. But the government's internal audits have repeatedly questioned the cost and effectiveness of the equipment and security systems bought from corporations that received a torrent of money under loosened regulations, limited oversight and tight congressional deadlines.

In February, the Office of Management and Budget found that only four of the 33 homeland security programs it examined were "effective." In March, the Homeland Security Department's inspector general noted "the lack of improvement" in the performance of passenger screeners. In April, the Government Accountability Office reported that "the implementation and transformation of DHS remains high-risk."

Scores of government reports, congressional testimony and interviews with dozens of government and business officials document rising costs and specific flaws in some of the major systems underway:

· The contract to hire airport passenger screeners grew to $741 million from $104 million in less than a year. The screeners are failing to detect weapons at roughly the same rate as shortly after the attacks.

· The contract for airport bomb-detection machines ballooned to at least $1.2 billion from $508 million over 18 months. The machines have been hampered by high false-alarm rates.

· A contract for a computer network called US-VISIT to screen foreign visitors could cost taxpayers $10 billion. It relies on outdated technology that puts the project at risk.

· Radiation-detection machines worth a total of a half-billion dollars deployed to screen trucks and cargo containers at ports and borders have trouble distinguishing between highly enriched uranium and common household products. The problem has prompted costly plans to replace the machines.

"Whenever you try to spend a billion dollars in a hurry, you're vulnerable to people who come to the plate and sell you some things that aren't really well prepared," said Paul J. Werbos, a computer expert at the National Science Foundation who advises U.S. government agencies. "The biggest concern is that we're going to spend a whole lot of money without getting something useful out of it."

Since fiscal 2001, annual spending on contracts managed by the Homeland Security Department or its precursor agencies has more than doubled, to $5.8 billion, according to data from Eagle Eye Publishers Inc., a company that analyzes government contracting data. The beneficiaries include Unisys Corp., Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., General Dynamics Corp. and Accenture Ltd., along with such lesser-known companies as Veritas Capital Inc. and Datatrac Information Services Inc.

At a recent gathering of contractors in Northern Virginia, the chief contracting officer for one Homeland Security division said he wasn't sure how his agency had spent $700 million -- more than one-third of its budget last year was listed under "other."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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