By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009 6:00 PM
President Obama would eliminate new funding for advanced-generation equipment to detect nuclear weapons and radiological materials at U.S. borders and ports and around New York City in his 2010 budget, homeland security officials said.
The decisions, outlined in Homeland Security Department budget documents and briefings Thursday, mark a turn away from a priority of the administration of former president George W. Bush, who with former vice president Dick Cheney championed development of new technologies that could lead to a ring of domestic sensors of weapons of mass destruction.
But the research effort -- which former homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff described as a "mini-Manhattan project" -- has run into problems. Technical flaws and doubts about the integrity of scientific testing have delayed multi-billion dollar plans to buy advanced spectroscopic portal monitors, or ASPs, and automated cargo radiographic imaging systems, or CAARs, to scan for nuclear materials aboard cars, trucks, trains and cargo moving through air and land ports.
Congress has forced DHS's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to hold off on new purchases, and Obama declined to request funds to buy equipment under DNDO beyond the $153 million Bush obtained last year.
"In 2010, unspent funds will be drawn down as DHS transitions to a different model to fund the purchases of radiation detection equipment within the Department in future budgets," Obama budget documents stated. A DHS official, provided to brief reporters on condition of anonymity, said the decision is not a policy shift but that it was "prudent to take a pause" to work through technical problems and redirect DNDO's work to individual agencies that use the equipment.
Obama is also ending Securing the Cities, a three-year, $90 million pilot program intended to test whether it is possible to secure an urban area -- in this case New York City -- against nuclear terrorism by draping it with an integrated system of handheld, aerial, truck-mounted and waterborne sensors.
"This is the end of the program as far as requesting new funds," the DHS official said.
Critics said that rather than investing in a "goal-line defense" against nuclear terrorists, it is better to spend money to secure nuclear materials at their source, coordinate a government-wide counter-proliferation strategy and to strengthen the operations of first-responders who would answer any alarm.
"My concern is . . . deploying systems that have not been proven technically to be effective, and before we have the means to make them operational," said Randall Larsen, executive director of the congressionally created Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. "What do you do if the alarm goes off?" he said, adding, "What's the strategy behind what we're trying to do?"