The agency responsible for protecting the United States from nuclear terrorism wasted time, money, and effort on flawed detection technology rather than developing a plan to close critical vulnerabilities terrorists could exploit, a panel of watchdogs told a Senate committee today.
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.
"Almost four years ago, they took their eye off the ball in what they were supposed to do, and that is complete the architecture with existing equipment," said Aloise. He believes that if the DNDO had developed the strategic plan, it wouldn't have spent four years trying to unsuccessfully develop ASPs.
Dana A. Shea, a specialist in science and technology policy at the Congressional Research Service, agreed, adding the lack of an overarching plan makes it extremely difficult for other agencies to coordinate with DNDO to create a common defense.
"Absent a strategic plan that lays out what the architecture's goals are and how to measure success towards those goals," he said, "it would be very difficult for an agency to be investing with that purpose in mind because they wouldn't have that information to bring into their budgeting process."
The failure has left vulnerabilities terrorists could exploit, the witnesses said.
"The threat of nuclear terrorist attack on the United States is growing faster than our ability to prevent a nuclear terrorist attack on our homeland," said Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-CT).
In previous reports, the GAO has criticized the cost and performance of ASPs. Individual machines cost almost three times as much as already deployed technology, which DHS reports is currently screening nearly 100 percent of cargo at U.S. land borders and seaports. The GAO says the DNDO has already spent $224 million on ASPs, which does not include the cost of testing the technology.
Asked if DNDO should quit the ASP program and focus on the strategic plan, Aloise said yes.
"Even if you deploy the ASP, it's going to be of marginal value, and what we need to do is close the gaps in the architecture first," he said.
Lieberman commented that the problems raised by the witnesses could be characterized as "an indictment" of past behavior by the DNDO and the federal government on a critical homeland security issue.
The second part of the hearing is scheduled to occur on July 21. A representative from DNDO is slated to appear.
♦ Photo of border patrol by jim.greenhill/U.S. Army/Flickr