By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; A09
Five years after Department of Homeland Security officials vowed to block the importation of radioactive materials that could be used to make a bomb, they still have not closed security gaps at U.S. borders, according to government auditors and researchers.
The failure to develop a strategic plan has delayed the creation of a "global nuclear detection architecture" that would guide a variety of federal agencies that share responsibility for preventing terrorists from detonating a nuclear bomb in the United States, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has found.
Instead of formulating a plan, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, part of DHS, spent more than $200 million on an ill-fated project to develop and deploy thousands of new high-tech detectors for screening vehicles and cargo at ports, according to the GAO.
In February, following one setback after another, officials abandoned full-scale deployment of the machines.
"Five years into its existence, it is apparent that the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office needs retooling," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which will hold a hearing about the office on Wednesday.
DHS spokesman Chris Ortman said the department has taken steps in the past 18 months "to enhance our radiological and nuclear detection capabilities" and improve cargo screening. He said DHS also is using its own "detection architecture" as a "framework to guide our work with our interagency partners to strengthen our nation's security against nuclear threats."
For years, specialists in and out of the government have criticized federal initiatives to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear material as uncoordinated and ineffective. The detection office was established by presidential directive in 2005, partly in response to that criticism.
But soon after it was formed, the office began focusing heavily on a new kind of detection equipment known as the advanced spectroscopic portal machine, or ASP. George W. Bush administration officials announced the $1.2 billion project in 2006, saying it would dramatically improve the government's ability to screen for radioactive materials. But the GAO and other government investigators turned up evidence that the machines did not work as well as billed. They later discovered that they cost more than twice the amount that officials in the detection office had originally told Congress.
While focusing on the ASP machines -- which were primarily intended for ports of entry to screen cargo containers -- the office did not adequately address other security gaps, including those along rail lines from Canada and Mexico and along air cargo routes, according to the GAO.
Without an overall "detection architecture" to block gaps, the focus on ports of entry, even with new detection equipment, may simply "deflect adversaries, causing them to focus on other gaps in the nation's security that are identified as easier targets," Micah D. Lowenthal, director of the Nuclear Security and Nuclear Facility Safety Program at the National Research Council, said in a draft of his remarks to be delivered to the committee Wednesday.