Radiation Detectors for Border Are Delayed Again

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A $1.2 billion plan by the Department of Homeland Security to buy a new kind of radiation-detection machine for the nation's borders has been put on hold again, a blow to one of the Bush administration's top security goals.

At the same time, federal authorities are investigating whether Homeland Security officials urged an analyst to destroy information about the performance of the machines during testing, according to interviews and a document.

For more than a year, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and others have told Congress that the costly next-generation machines would sharply improve the screening of trucks, cars and cargo containers for radiological material. In announcing contracts in July 2006 to buy as many as 1,400 of the devices, Chertoff said they were ready to be deployed in the field for research. He recently called their acquisition a "vital priority."

But in the face of growing questions by government auditors, Congress and border officials about the machines' performance, Chertoff has decided that they don't operate well enough and need more work. It could be another year before they are ready, officials said.

In a statement, Laura Keehner, a Homeland Security spokeswoman, said field tests of the advanced spectroscopic portal radiation monitors, or ASPs, at several locations by Customs and Border Protection officials turned up shortcomings that "led to the determination that additional functional capability is needed to meet the operational requirements."

The turnabout is among a series of episodes that have raised questions about the management of the department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and its efforts to deploy the promising but highly complex and largely untried machines.

In a Nov. 16 letter to Congress, the director of the DNDO said his staff members were looking into allegations that someone there directed personnel from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who were helping analyze recent results of testing of the machines, to delete some of the data.

"We have also issued a preservation notice to all personnel who have worked on the ASP program directing them to preserve all documents, e-mail, and memoranda relating to the ASP program," Vayl Oxford, director of the nuclear detection office, wrote to Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has been examining the program.

Russ Knocke, a Homeland Security spokesman, acknowledged that the nuclear detection office had communicated with an analyst at the National Institute of Standards and Technology about the data. But, he said, "we've nearly completed our review, and there is no indication of anything inappropriate."

A senior Homeland Security official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the e-mail communication focused on protecting sensitive or classified material, not on destroying records to hide them from scrutiny. People familiar with the inquiry said the computers were confiscated. An official at the national institute said he believed the agency had all the test data and reports.

Questions about the detection machines' performance go back more than a year. In June 2006, the nuclear detection office gave a report to Congress that said the machines were effective. Two weeks later, Chertoff announced the $1.2 billion in contracts as part of a plan to "accelerate the research on and the deployment of a next generation radiation-detection technology." That August, Government Accountability Office auditors alleged that the nuclear detection officials had greatly exaggerated the machines' capabilities in the June report.

The GAO's allegations and other issues spurred Congress to mandate that Chertoff personally certify that the detectors, which cost $377,000 each, are ready for full-scale deployment and would bring significant improvements in screening compared with existing machines.

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