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.
Earlier this year, GAO auditors found that Homeland Security officials allowed contractors to conduct "dress rehearsals" and calibrate their machines in anticipation of tests in January and February, a move that auditors said had enhanced the outcome of tests. Those tests were being conducted in part to support Chertoff's certification. The certification was originally set to occur months ago but was delayed after the GAO presented its findings.
GAO officials testified recently that they have had trouble getting more test results from the nuclear detection officials to verify the performance of the machines.
In a statement yesterday, Dingell said the possibility that some of the data may have been destroyed was troubling. "In the past, when records have been intentionally destroyed to thwart Congressional oversight, it led to severe consequences," he said.
Field testing of the ASPs at several border crossings has turned up problems with the machines, which often could not be operated without the assistance of the vendors. Because of the repeated delays in the project and questions from Congress, only a small portion of the $1.2 billion has been spent.
A Homeland Security spokeswoman said the department has purchased more than 55 ASPs -- 10 that are used for testing and more than 45 that are not being used.
In July, several days after a Washington Post story about previous problems and delays with the program, Chertoff ordered an independent review of the machines before his certification. "This acquisition is a vital priority for the department," Chertoff wrote to lawmakers.
But on Oct. 19, Chertoff privately decided that he would "postpone certification and production decisions until all issues are resolved," according to a Nov. 2 letter sent to Homeland Security officials by Dingell. Homeland Security officials recently briefed Congress about the change.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, urged the department "to work quickly to resolve its problems so we can put this technology to work."
Dingell said existing radiation detectors will help protect the country for now. In a statement, he criticized the nuclear detection office's management of the project, suggesting that "it may be time for a new team to run this program."