By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008
NEW YORK -- A New York City Police Department helicopter with an ultra-sensitive radiation detector affixed to its tail whipped through a wintry sky over Lower Manhattan last month, hunting block by block through the concrete canyons of Wall Street for a black SUV containing the components of a homemade radiological "dirty bomb."
The 30-minute training exercise failed to detect a deliberately planted chunk of radioactive cesium-137, a material that -- if dispersed by an explosive -- could paralyze the nation's financial nerve center. With time running short, police operators blamed technical glitches, and the pilot turned back to a West Side landing pad.
The test sweep, which followed a secret, concerted search for radioactive materials in Manhattan by hundreds of local, state and federal officers before the city's New Year's Eve celebration, underscores the government's determination to prove this year that it can detect and disrupt nuclear threats to major cities.
At an estimated cost of $90 million, the Securing the Cities program absorbs a small fraction of the Bush administration's overall national security and counter-proliferation expenditures. But critics have raised questions about its value, noting its rapid growth in the absence of a specific threat of urban nuclear terrorism, as well as the program's technical challenges and operational limitations.
Its aims, Senate appropriators warned in a report last year, may be technologically unfeasible. The attempt to create a detection system in New York as a model for other cities is based on assumptions "that run counter to current intelligence in this threat arena, and has no measure of success, nor an end point," they said.
Michael A. Levi, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar and the author of the recently published book "On Nuclear Terrorism," said the Securing the Cities program may be useful but that its backers should be more open about its goals and limits. He also worries that too much is being spent on technology and not enough on coordination.
Supporters say that however slight the odds, the risks of a nuclear-related attack on New York or another U.S. city are not zero. And such an attack's consequences on the nation's economy, society and psyche would be too extreme to neglect a goal-line defense, they say.
Securing the Cities may not be perfect, but it will evolve, "and the only way to evolve it over time is to test it," said Jonah J. Czerwinski, an IBM homeland security consultant who pushed for its creation. The United States spends $11 billion on missile defense each year, so "it seems lopsided to . . . not spend $40 million on programs like this."
Vayl S. Oxford, director of the Department of Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which directs the program, said that his office hopes to complete in the next year a cost-benefit analysis of the New York effort to determine whether it can offer lessons to other cities based on resources, operational needs "and the likelihood of success."
"We don't want to wait until someone has attacked a city with a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb and wait to figure that out," Oxford said. "Together with the high risk New York always faces, we feel this is a prudent step to help secure that city, as well as to determine, 'Does this model work?' "
To New York leaders, the dirty bomb threat is real. Before New Year's Day in 2004, the U.S. government dispatched scores of nuclear scientists with covert detection gear to scour five major cities including New York for radiation, based on intelligence intercepts of al-Qaeda operatives discussing an unspecified new attack. On Aug. 10, New York authorities briefly increased their detection efforts after a Web site that monitors jihadist Internet sites reported a dirty-bomb threat, which was subsequently discredited.
"We have to take it seriously -- because New York is at the top of al-Qaeda's target list, and we are the last line of defense," said Richard A. Falkenrath, NYPD's deputy commissioner for counterterrorism and a former Bush White House homeland security aide.
Although a dirty bomb spewing nuclear materials would kill far fewer people than an improvised nuclear explosive, the materials could fuse with asphalt and concrete and prevent access to critical urban areas such as buildings, train stations or tunnels for years, causing a catastrophic economic impact, he said.
The DHS, New York police, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and officials from three states and 91 localities have responded by forging a partnership that participants and outside experts have praised. More than 1,400 local officers have been trained in radiation detection operations, and basic, hand-held radiation detectors have been distributed to thousands of police officers and others whose daily work has them crisscrossing the region.
Half a dozen advanced, $500,000 trucks with detectors capable of distinguishing different radioactive materials are also in use in Manhattan, along with classified vehicles, and more are on the way. Additional funds have been designated for training, field exercises, security improvements at hospitals and other high-risk sites where radioactive materials are present, and research into the effectiveness of using scanners at fixed points such as transportation nodes, Oxford said.
The results were illustrated when hundreds of local, state and federal agents fanned out on highways and other approaches to Manhattan searching for telltale radiation signatures before New Year's Eve. Officers scanned warehouses, garages and other buildings as much as 80 miles away. On Dec. 31, authorities also set up checkpoints and monitored radiation sensors deployed on bridges, tunnels, boats and waterways around the island.
In addition to conducting periodic aerial screening, New York police routinely set up checkpoints twice a day on Manhattan roadways as a defensive, training and deterrence measure. On the day the helicopter search failed, a ground unit operating three kinds of vehicle sensors successfully detected the test sport-utility vehicle carrying cesium-137 on 42nd Street near Eighth Avenue, close to Times Square.
But independent experts warn that existing detectors are far less capable of finding an improvised nuclear bomb with lead-shielded, weapons-grade uranium, which would emit a much smaller radiation signal. Policymakers in Washington regard that as a far more serious threat than dirty bombs. New York worries just as much about the latter, and believes the program can provide an effective defense.
Falkenrath said the New York system still has three pressing needs: better detection technology to find the most dangerous and shielded devices; better communications and data transfer links for managing monitoring efforts; and better procedures allowing police officers to investigate all alarms without disrupting traffic, which they can do in Manhattan but not on the approaching highways.
"It's a difficult thing to do, and I'll be frank about it. . . . It requires really constant vigilance and effort to maintain it," Falkenrath said. "Certainly, if this model goes nationwide, they need a lot more help, because most other parts of the country are not going to have the ability to devote these sorts of resources" without cutting into everyday crime-fighting.
New York paid the Department of Energy $800,000 in 2005 to map background radiation sources in the city -- a critical baseline requirement for detection efforts. The survey found 80 unexpected hot spots, including a public park on Staten Island that was subsequently shut down. The DHS and the DOE were told to advertise their capability to other cities. So far, only Chicago and Washington have expressed interest, Oxford said.
The office that oversees Securing the Cities was created in 2006 with the support of Vice President Cheney, and its $485 million 2008 budget is the largest part of the DHS's shrinking research portfolio, which includes aviation security, explosives and bio-defense.
But its efforts have hit turbulence. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in October delayed the deployment of as much as 1,400 advanced spectroscopic portal radiation detectors as part of a $1.2 billion program announced in July 2006 to screen trucks, cars and cargo containers at border crossings and ports. Congress withheld funds this year to buy the $377,000 machines amid concerns about the DHS's cost-benefit analysis used to justify their development.