Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 28, 2006

GAO reports on radiological smuggling out Tuesday

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Christian Beckner on March 28, 2006

On the eve of his Senate hearing on “Neutralizing The Nuclear And Radiological Threat: Securing the Global Supply Chain,” Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) distributed three GAO reports to the media that will be publicly released at the hearing. From CNN’s description of the first report:

Two teams of government investigators using fake documents were able to enter the United States with enough radioactive sources to make two dirty bombs, according to a federal report made available Monday.

The investigators purchased a “small quantity” of radioactive materials from a commercial source, according to a Government Accountability Office report prepared for Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Chairman Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican.

The investigators posed as employees of a fictitious company and brought the materials into the United States through checkpoints on the northern and southern borders, the report stated.

And the second report:

A second GAO report notes that while the departments of State, Energy and Defense have provided radiation-detection equipment to 36 countries since 1994 to combat nuclear smuggling, operating the equipment has proven challenging.

Those challenges include technical limitations of some of the equipment, a lack of supporting infrastructure at some border sites and corruption of some foreign border security officials.

And on the third report:

A third GAO report observes that, while the Department of Homeland Security has made progress in deploying radiation-detection equipment at U.S. ports — which include 670 portal monitors and more than 19,000 pieces of hand-held radiation detection equipment as of last December — the agency’s program goals are “unrealistic” and its cost estimate is “uncertain.”

GAO’s analysis concluded that the program may exceed its budget by $342 million.

I’ll loathe to make a judgment until I see the full reports, but my initial impression from a close read of this story and related stories is that this is not necessarily the bad-news story for DHS, DOE, et al. that the relevant news headlines would imply. There are still gaps in the system, and the GAO is right to point these out. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. But I think the federal government has made a lot of solid progress in the area of radiological and nuclear detection in the last four years, dealing with a challenge which is always going to be inherently difficult due to the scientific realities of detecting certain types of materials.

Also, while we definitely do need to improve border detection capabilities, I think we need to be careful not to put all of our resources on the single point of failure at the border. Instead, we need a smart, layered strategy for nuclear and radiological detection that integrates border detection efforts with interior detection efforts, includes an enhanced role for state and local law enforcement, and is integrated with the intelligence community.

Update (3/28): The reports and the prepared testimony from the hearing are available here.

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1 Comment »


Comment by J.

March 28, 2006 @ 7:59 am

Coleman’s a grandstanding idiot. He’s careful enough to show how concerned he is, but he’s not offering to correct the situation because he knows this is a money sinkhole. I agree with you that a layered defense is preferred, but there’s no way that we can afford a year-round rad detector program at all the ports covering all the incoming shipments. We need a strategy that is more aligned with intel on suspect shipping firms, specific groups, and random inspections. And last of all, we have to balance the relatively low-probability threat of smuggling radioactive material into the US for “dirty bombs” (why wouldn’t the terrorists just go to a US nuclear site or storage site? since Yucca’s not operational, lots of loose stuff around) against the high-probability threat of drug smuggling and illegal immigration.

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