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Radiation Detector Program Delayed

The radiation portal monitors were envisioned as the nation's key bulwark against attacks with radioactive material. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government spent more than $200 million on detection equipment that could not distinguish nuclear devices from more benign sources of radiation, such as ceramic tiles and cat litter.

President Bush directed the establishment of the nuclear detection office in spring 2005 to be the main resource for assessing and buying monitors. Its mission includes providing technical advice to other agencies.

The office immediately began testing machines that, according to GAO estimates, cost about six times as much as current monitors. The Advanced Spectroscopic Portal radiation monitors rely on sensitive detection technology that had not previously been used in the field in the way officials envisioned.

Homeland Security officials tested monitors made by 10 companies. But before the results of those tests were made available to Congress, auditors from the GAO, in March 2006, raised questions about the procurement process.

The auditors predicted cost overruns of as much as $596 million and said the "prototypes of this equipment have not yet been shown to be more effective than the portal monitors now in use." The auditors concluded that it "is not clear that the dramatically higher cost of this equipment would be worth the investment."

In response, Congress told Chertoff and officials at the nuclear detection office to produce a "cost-benefit" analysis, comparing the existing machines with the proposed replacements.

In June 2006, the department delivered a report that said that the new machines "can correctly detect and identify highly enriched uranium (HEU) 95 percent of the time," according to the GAO. Congressional appropriators then approved the spending.

On July 14, 2006, Chertoff and Oxford announced that they had ordered the first 80 of 1,400 new monitors. The monitors, manufactured by three companies, were to be deployed last fall under a deal that officials said involved up to a year of research and development and up to four years of full-scale deployment.

In the meantime, the GAO auditors examined the detection office's cost-benefit report. In a private meeting last August, the auditors told lawmakers that the report used optimistic assumptions and overstated the acquisition costs of the existing detection machines, distorting any cost comparison.

The auditors concluded that "DNDO's cost-benefit analysis does not justify its recent decision to purchase and deploy" the new machines and that the nuclear detection office should not spend more money buying the machines "until it conducts realistic testing," according to documents included with a GAO report last fall.

That finding prompted Congress to tell Chertoff that deployment of the new monitors should not occur until he vouched for a new round of tests his department conducted in January and February, the results of which have yet to be released.

In March, Oxford testified before a House homeland security subcommittee that the GAO misunderstood the cost-benefit report. He said "we stand behind the basic conclusions" of the report, which he said was done to justify research and development, not full-scale production. Oxford said his office followed department guidelines in drafting the report.

That assertion was contradicted last week by the GAO letter, which said that Oxford's nuclear detection office did not meet seven of eight department guidelines. The letter also said that DHS officials were briefed on the requirements just days before the cost-benefit report was delivered to Congress.

During that March hearing, the GAO's Eugene E. Aloise warned lawmakers that "the data used in the [cost-benefit] analysis was incomplete and unreliable, and as a result, we do not have any confidence in it."

Lawmakers in both parties were also openly skeptical of Oxford's testimony.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) told Oxford that Aloise's testimony suggested that "you screwed up big time. You did what you weren't supposed to do."

In an interview this week, Oxford said the contracts for the project were written in a way to give his office flexibility to continue studying the performance of the monitors before they were deployed. He defended last year's cost-benefit report as a "preliminary" document that did not mean his office was prepared to authorize full production.

Oxford stood by his assertion that his office was not told by the GAO precisely what to include in the cost-benefit report. "We were never given the specific details of what they thought was flawed in our methodology," he said.

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