NEWS

DHS Agency Criticized Over Lack of Nuclear Terrorism Defense Plan

By Matthew Harwood

The agency responsible for protecting the United States from nuclear terrorism wasted time, money, and effort on unproven detection technology rather than developing a plan to close critical vulnerabilities terrorists could exploit, a panel of watchdogs told the Senate Homeland Security committee today.

The focus of the hearing was the Department of Homeland Security's little-known Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO). Created by former President George Bush in 2005, DNDO's mission is to coordinate and oversee the federal government's defense against a nuclear terrorist attack, the most significant part of which is to create a strategic plan to construct "a global nuclear detection architecture" to stop nuclear smuggling into the United States.

The plan, recommended as far back as 2002 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), would help DNDO prioritize efforts critical to thwart nuclear smuggling and terrorism—a threat many, including the current administration, deem the number one national security issue.

"There is no greater threat to the American people than weapons of mass destruction, particularly the danger posed by the pursuit of nuclear weapons by violent extremists and their proliferation to additional states," the recently released National Security Strategy (.pdf) states.

(For more on the threat of nuclear terrorism, see "Nuclear Threat: High or Highly Exaggerated," by Stephanie Berrong in the Aug. 2009 issue of Security Management.)

Instead of plannning properly, DNDO became obsessed with trying to deploy advanced spectroscopic (ASP) radiation detection monitors when existing technology adequately fulfilled that need, explained Gene Aloise, GAO director of Natural Resources and Environment.

DNDO would have better spent taxpayer money by finishing the strategic plan and determining how to prevent nuclear smuggling by aircraft, small boats, and at the border, he said. All three areas present a significant risk of nuclear smuggling, especially by small boat.  According to the Coast Guard, smaller vessels present a greater threat of nuclear smuggling than shipping containers.

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