Radiation Detector Program Delayed

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007

A $1.2 billion program to deploy new radiation monitors to screen trucks, cars and cargo containers for signs of nuclear devices has been delayed by questions over whether Department of Homeland Security officials misled Congress about the effectiveness of the detectors.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the contracts for monitors with cutting-edge technology a year ago. He said they would improve radiation scans at borders and ports, while sharply reducing the number of false alarms. Congress had allowed the five-year project to move ahead after Homeland Security assured appropriators that the $377,000 machines would detect highly enriched uranium 95 percent of the time.

"What this next generation of detection equipment is going to let us do is make those determinations much more precisely, much more easily and much more quickly," Chertoff said.

But the department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office did not know whether the detectors would work effectively, according to documents and interviews.

Auditors from the Government Accountability Office later found that the detection rates of machines tested by the department were as low as 17 percent and no higher than about 50 percent. The auditors said the department's optimistic report to Congress on the cost and benefits of the machines was based on assumptions instead of facts -- a finding that prompted lawmakers to put the project on hold last year.

Last week, the GAO told Congress that Homeland Security officials did not follow their own guidelines for ensuring that the cost-benefit report was accurate and complete. The GAO also said the director of the nuclear detection office was incorrect when he testified in March that the office was not aware of any specifics about whether officials followed the guidelines. A GAO official said auditors would release a report about the monitors next month.

Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said Congress will continue pressing officials for more verifiable details about the monitors before they allow the project to proceed.

"As DHS develops costly new technology critical to the nation's security, Congress must be able to rely on DNDO's claims about the technology," Lieberman said in an e-mailed statement. "DNDO's estimates of costs and benefits must be based on facts, not assumptions. And, while taking into account the effects this technology will have on commerce, it must be based first and foremost on how best to prevent nuclear smuggling."

Vayl Oxford, director of the nuclear detection office, defended the high detection rate cited in the report to Congress last year as a "high-water goal" the agency hoped to achieve, not an assessment of the monitors' capabilities. Oxford said recent tests of the monitors in New York show a "dramatic decrease" in false alarms. Oxford said eight monitors will be deployed at four border crossings and ports for further performance tests this week.

The government has had difficulty getting independent, reliable technical assessments about the plausibility, cost and benefits of advanced technology before Congress and agencies commit to spending. It has always struggled when buying new technology, which is why Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment in 1972. For two decades, scientists and engineers in that office helped sort out technical truths from wishful thinking in project proposals. But the office was killed in 1995 in an effort to streamline federal programs.

Since then, as government spending on new technology rose to record levels, the primary technical advisers to federal officials often have been the contractors themselves. Billions of dollars have been wasted on failed, flawed or speculative projects.

A new computer system for tracking imports and exports was delayed by years because of technical problems, and the cost rose by $1 billion, to $3.1 billion. A computer system for the FBI to track criminal cases was abandoned after more than $100 million was spent. A system designed to track the entry and exit of foreign visitors featured a "prototype" network for recording visitor exits that cost $146 million but does not work.

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