Homeland security officials responsible for defending against radiological and nuclear terror attacks did not properly test high-tech radiation detectors for use at the nation's ports of entry, according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences.
As it pushed to deploy cutting-edge technology in recent years, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, or DNDO, at the Department of Homeland Security conducted poorly designed performance tests that undermined officials' ability to "draw reliable conclusions" about whether the costly new equipment would work as billed, the report said.
DNDO officials also presented the test results "in ways that are incorrect and potentially misleading," the report said.
Those conclusions come more than two years after Congress asked the academy to assess a third round of DNDO testing and evaluation of the machines, called Advanced Spectroscopic Portal machines, or ASPs.
The report echoes allegations that surfaced in debates about one of the George W. Bush administration's top national security initiatives. In 2006, Congress approved $1.2 billion for the machines. The program stalled after Government Accountability Office auditors accused the DNDO of playing down the costs, overstating the benefits and providing misleading information to Congress.
The Obama administration scrapped the original ASP plans in February and scaled back the machines' deployment. They now will be used for secondary screening of vehicles including cargo containers.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has been been closely monitoring the program, said the report's findings "are deeply troubling." He said the report raises questions about whether the DNDO should have concurrent responsibilities for developing, testing and buying such systems.
DHS officials praised the academy for its work and said the findings would be "taken into careful consideration." Spokesman Chris Ortman said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano last month submitted a strategic plan developed by the DNDO to create a global framework for protecting against "illicit radiological and nuclear weapons and materials."
In their report, academy scientists concluded that the DNDO should follow a "standard scientific approach."
Robert Dynes, a physicist and former president of the University of California who led the committee of scientistst, said the DNDO was trying to crack a "really hard problem." But "they weren't doing it in a robust, scientific way."
"I believe they rushed it," he said.