U.S. Weighs How Best to Defend Against Nuclear Threats

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 15, 2006

Beset by delays, cost overruns and technical problems, the U.S. government's quest to defend the nation against a smuggled nuclear weapon or radiological "dirty" bomb is approaching a crossroads.

In coming weeks, the Bush administration will award or initiate contracts worth $3 billion to develop a new generation of rugged and precise radiation monitors and imaging scanners designed to sniff out radioactive material at the nation's borders.

Authorities must choose in part between older, reliable technology of limited effectiveness and new, more costly, less proven devices that promise greater accuracy.

The stakes could hardly be higher: securing U.S. cities from a catastrophic attack with a weapon of mass destruction -- "the biggest threat we face today," as Vice President Cheney said often during the 2004 campaign.

The government has stumbled repeatedly with similar choices, costing taxpayers billions. In the nearly five years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Bush administration and Congress have poured more than $5 billion into homeland security detection systems, radiological and otherwise, only to find that the best available equipment at the time was often of limited use. It has spent $300 million on an early class of radiation monitors that couldn't tell uranium from cat litter and invested $1.2 billion in airport baggage screening systems that initially were no more effective than the equipment screeners used before.

"A lot of the money we threw out there was wasted because the technology was not so good," said James Jay Carafano, senior fellow for national and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.

Last month congressional investigators reported that the United States is "unlikely" to meet its goal of installing 3,000 next-generation detectors by September 2009 and projected it will be about $342 million above its anticipated $1.2 billion cost. At the same time, initial testing of new technology produced "mixed" results, while costing more.

The struggle to complete what Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff calls a "mini-Manhattan Project" provides a case study of America's challenges in dealing with the 21st-century perils of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

To skeptics, even some close to the administration, the focus on stopping a nuclear bomb hidden in a container at the border is a costly fixation on a scenario that -- while nightmarish -- is not supported by intelligence and is overshadowed by other threats.

"This is the equivalent of a comet hitting the planet. Of all the things that are in the world, why are we fixated on this one thing?" Carafano asked. "Scanning containers full of sneakers for a 'nuke in a box' is not a really thoughtful thing."

Former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III, who led a congressional commission on weapons of mass destruction, said the Dubai port controversy showed how the Bush administration has profited politically from fears of terrorism at ports yet given Americans a false sense of security about conventional attacks, which are more likely.

"They have hyped the threat, and that has been a political advantage," said Gilmore, a former Republican National Committee chairman. "You can't rule out the possibility of something like this happening, but there isn't any evidence that I'm aware of that al-Qaeda or other terrorists have their hands on these weapons."

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