By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Department of Homeland Security tests of new radiation detection machines last year did not show whether the costly devices performed well enough to be used as planned at ports and borders to protect the country against nuclear attacks or dirty bombs, according to a new report about the process.
The performance tests were organized by the department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which has been trying to deploy the machines along the borders and at ports in a $1.2 billion project, despite allegations from government auditors that the office misled Congress about their effectiveness and later conducted flawed tests to show they worked well.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had said the development and purchase of the machines was a "vital priority" for the department. Officials from the nuclear detection office had asserted the tests -- mandated by Congress before the project was allowed to move forward -- showed they worked well.
But Chertoff called for an independent team to review the program last summer after a Washington Post article spelled out questions about the project. Last fall, Chertoff put the project on hold, conceding that the machines were not ready for wide use.
In the new report, the review team concluded that the testing last year was not able to show whether the machines, known as advanced spectroscopic portal radiation monitors, or ASPs, could "detect and identify actual objects that might be smuggled" into the country, according to portions of the report released by Congress.
"Even after collecting all available test results, it was difficult to form conclusions about operational effectiveness," the report said.
The House Committee on Homeland Security will hold a hearing today about the report and other testing by the nuclear detection office. Among those scheduled to testify is Vayl S. Oxford, director of the office.
"While I applaud the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office for its aggressive pursuit of new detection technologies, I still remain deeply concerned that the systems have not been properly tested and evaluated," said Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee's subcommittee on emerging threats, cyber-security and science and technology.
At the same time, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce issued a news release calling on the department to transfer testing responsibilities from the nuclear detection office to an independent group.
"We should not spend a single penny to install these machines at our ports and borders until valid testing is done to demonstrate that these costly new machines work significantly better than the existing radiation detectors," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the committee chairman.
The project to buy as many as 1,400 ASPs, which cost about $377,000 each, was announced in July 2006. A month later, Government Accountability Office auditors said the nuclear detection office greatly exaggerated the machine's capabilities in a report that spurred congressional approval of the project.
In response to those allegations, Congress mandated that Chertoff take the unusual step of personally certifying that the detectors represent a significant advance over existing detection equipment.
With that certification in mind, the nuclear detection office conducted tests in Nevada early last year. Those tests were called into question when GAO auditors found that department officials had allowed contractors to conduct "dress rehearsals" and calibrate their machines in anticipation of the tests.
The review team's report discounted the auditor's findings that the tests were biased. The team also said it found no evidence the test data were manipulated.