By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
In the weeks before key government tests of new radiation detection equipment, officials at the Department of Homeland Security helped contractors through repeated dry runs that enabled them to perform better during the examinations, according to government briefing documents obtained by The Washington Post.
Congress has been awaiting the test results before deciding whether to move forward on a troubled $1.2 billion counterterrorism effort to deploy the machines at ports and border crossings to screen trucks, cars and cargo carriers for nuclear devices.
The project, a leading national security initiative, has been delayed for months over concerns that department officials earlier misled Congress about the effectiveness of the devices, known as Advanced Spectroscopic Portals, or ASPs.
Now the Government Accountability Office is telling lawmakers that the new test results cannot be relied on because the department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office allowed contractors to "collect test data" about the kinds of radioactive materials they would be screening and then to "adjust their systems accordingly" for the actual tests in February and March, according to confidential briefing documents prepared by the GAO.
"Almost all of the materials, and combinations of materials, DNDO used in the formal tests were identical to those that the ASP contractors had specifically set their ASP's to identify from dry runs and dress rehearsals," the GAO briefing papers said.
Those allegations triggered sharp criticism from lawmakers yesterday, who accused Homeland Security officials of giving contractors test answers and mishandling one of their most important projects. A House Energy and Commerce oversight panel has summoned senior Homeland Security and GAO officials to testify about the allegations at a hearing today.
"DHS' handling of this issue would be comical if the threat of nuclear terror wasn't so real," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, adding that the department should not plan to use "these machines based upon these tests."
In a statement, DHS spokesman Russ Knocke defended the department's handling of the testing, saying "dry runs are a smart and common practice for testing programs and technologies prior to live use."
"ASP systems will have been subjected to the most rigorous and comprehensive evaluation of any radiation detection equipment ever deployed by the U.S. government," Knocke said. "The department has put forward a prudent approach to testing a system that is very much needed, and is already showing promise of considerable improvements over current capabilities."
The new GAO allegations follow a series of bumps and delays in government efforts since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to create a national network of improved detectors to protect against nuclear weapons and dirty bombs.
Hundreds of detectors have been deployed at a cost of more than $200 million. But those machines, known as radiation portal monitors, often cannot distinguish nuclear devices from benign sources of radiation such as cat litter.
Homeland security officials say a new generation of far more costly machines offer the potential of reducing false alarms, which some officials have said delay border crossing and commerce.
After the GAO questioned that assertion last year, the nuclear detection office gave Congress a cost-benefit report that asserted the $377,000 machines would detect highly enriched uranium 95 percent of the time. Two weeks later, in July 2006, with approval from lawmakers, homeland security officials announced the award of the $1.2 billion worth of contracts for the new machines.
The next month, the GAO notified lawmakers that the department's claim was only an assumption. Actual homeland security tests from 2005 showed the detection rate was far lower. The GAO said the cost-benefit report did not justify the proposed $1.2 billion in spending, a finding that spurred Congress to require Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to personally certify the results of new tests before moving forward with deployment.
Those new tests occurred in February and March, with the idea that Chertoff could sign off on the results and deployment of the machines could begin in June.
The test results have not been made public, but GAO auditors said the "test methods did not provide a fair and balanced evaluation of the ASPs' capabilities." They said the tests also did not properly assess the machine's ability to detect and identify dangerous radioactive material "masked" by other benign radioactive material intended to simulate a false alarm -- known as a false negative.
The GAO concluded that the test results "should not be relied upon to make a full-scale production decision."
Homeland security officials had pushed back a plan to present the test results to Chertoff until this month. Paul A. Schneider, undersecretary for management at DHS, recently said in a memo to Chertoff that Customs and Border Protection has recommended an additional two months of testing after a software update.