Review of Radiation Detectors Questioned

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tension continues to grow between Congress and the Department of Homeland Security over a $1.2 billion contract for new radiation monitors to screen trucks, cars and cargo containers for signs of nuclear weapons.

The Government Accountability Office has questioned the department's testing of the detection equipment, spurring Congress to delay funding last year pending further review and certification of the department's test results this fall.

In a sharply worded letter to the undersecretary for management, the chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce took issue with a plan announced by the department two weeks ago to have an outside review of the project and test results by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and another lawmaker said in the Aug. 10 letter that it appeared as though the Homeland Security Department were trying to do "an 'end run' with hastily planned and initiated 'independent review,' " instead of allowing the GAO to finish a study that is expected to be critical of the department's initiative. The GAO's report is to be delivered to Congress this month.

"On its face, it would appear such efforts are nothing other than an attempt to lessen the impact of potentially bad news from the GAO report," said the letter signed by Dingell and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).

Yesterday, other lawmakers in the Senate and House also sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that raised questions about the department's plans for the outside review. That letter urged the department to cooperate with the GAO study, saying that "an independent evaluation by GAO will best serve the oversight responsibilities of Congress and ensure public confidence in your ultimate decision."

In a statement, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said the project "involves some highly technical issues. Getting a second opinion from a panel of experts can only be helpful.

"We also need GAO to do what it does best: ask the tough questions and provide Congress with the facts," he said. "That is the best way to ensure that this critical program succeeds."

The letters are the latest salvos in an ongoing dispute over the department's handling of the radiation detection project, an effort that has been described as one of the nation's top security priorities. Three contractors were named as vendors in the $1.2 billion award announced by Chertoff and Vayl Oxford, director of the department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, last summer.

Since then, GAO auditors have repeatedly questioned the department's procedures for testing the detection machines that would replace the monitors in use at ports, border crossings and elsewhere.

The current monitors can be effective at detecting radioactive materials, experts said, but they have difficulty distinguishing between potential threats and benign sources of radiation such as cat litter.

In one report, GAO auditors found that the department relied on optimistic assumptions instead of its own test results in a cost-benefit report to Congress about the effectiveness of the new radiation monitors.

In return, Homeland Security officials have questioned the ability of the GAO to understand the scientific intricacies involved in evaluating the new assessment technology, known as Advanced Spectroscopic Portal radiation monitors.

"There is ample reason to be concerned that the GAO lacks the critical experience and expertise necessary for a project of this magnitude," William R. Knocke, spokesman for DHS, said in an e-mail. "We want to involve the very best experts in the field . . . That is why the department has asked the Defense Threat Reduction Agency for an independent review of the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal system."

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