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Security Beat 

Bad News All Around for DHS Cargo Technology Programs 


By Stew Magnuson 

The Department of Homeland Security’s advanced radiation detection portal monitor program since 2005 has been attempting to come up with a better way to detect nuclear material hidden in shipping containers.

Five years of effort has resulted in scanners that are only “marginally” better than the first-generation monitors that were infamous for setting off numerous false alarms, said Gene Aloise, director of natural resources and environment at the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO is now questioning “whether the benefits of the new portal monitors justify the high cost,” Aloise said.

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, the DHS agency responsible for the program, has endured criticism from GAO for years over the rigor of its testing procedures. Aloise told the House Committee on Science and Technology’s subcommittee on investigations and oversight, that these testing procedures had improved.

What the tests showed, however, was that the new portals were not performing significantly better than the equipment currently in place.

Congress has required that the DHS secretary certify that the monitors provide “a significant increase in operational effectiveness” before full-scale procurement begins.

The problem continues to be false alarms. The first generation monitors were sharply criticized for detecting minuscule amounts of harmless radiation found in such items as kitty litter, bathroom tiles and bananas. July 2009 testing showed that nuclear material that was shielded required the machines to be calibrated at higher levels. But these higher levels increased sensitivity and created more false alarms.

Too many false alarms slow down the pace of commerce, and requires Customs and Border Protection agents to conduct secondary screenings.

As for a congressional requirement that all U.S.-bound containers be X-rayed at high volume foreign ports by 2012, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano confirmed in a November Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing that the conditions for an extension of the deadline had been met. She cited technical difficulties, cost, and the effect on the flow of commerce. Only 5 percent of cargo was being X-rayed, she said.

Meanwhile, the DHS office of inspector general said the department’s efforts to detect chemical and biological weapons potentially smuggled in cargo lacks a risk assessment needed to determine how and what pathways a terrorist might use to sneak such materials into the United States.   

A heavily redacted October report on CBP’s ability to detect weapons of mass destruction, said that new technologies are being developed without regard to the circumstances in which they would be used.

CBP concurred with the IG’s findings that an assessment was needed.
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