WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., Wednesday said the agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) responsible for coordinating the nation’s protections against the smuggling of nuclear materials has not performed its job well and needs to be fixed.
At the Committee’s eighth hearing in a series to examine the nation’s defenses against nuclear terrorism, the Senators chided the five-year-old Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) for failing to achieve its core mission to coordinate a global nuclear detection architecture to protect the nation from nuclear terrorism and has been slow to improve the domestic layers of defenses outside of seaports and major land ports of entry.
“The threat of nuclear terror attack on the United States is growing faster than our ability to prevent a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States,” Lieberman said. “Five years into its existence, based on its record, it is inescapable to conclude that DNDO requires real retooling, and quickly.”
Lieberman and Collins expressed dismay over a conclusion by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that DNDO had failed to develop a strategic plan to coordinate the work of other agencies to counter the threat of nuclear terrorism, in part because it was distracted over several years by efforts to develop an Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) monitor program.
“The absence of a plan facilitated the most significant mistake DNDO made, which was trying to improve its capacity to detect nuclear materials coming into our ports when they already had coverage there, while our defenses at international railroads and along the coastline were nonexistent,” Lieberman said.
Collins said: “The Department of Homeland Security must adopt a strategic plan for addressing vulnerabilities in the nation’s defenses against the smuggling of illicit nuclear material. DHS must have this plan in place to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and effectively on this effort.” She noted that if DHS completes its long-awaited strategic plan for a global nuclear detection architecture this fall, it will have taken the Department eight years to create that strategy, which GAO first established the need for in October 2002. “This delay is troubling to me, given what is at stake,” Collins continued. “The failure to produce plans before acquiring equipment and technology is a problem that seems to permeate DHS acquisition programs. Indeed, a GAO report that is being released today found that almost half of the complex DHS programs it assessed did not have baseline requirements established until more than two years after the programs were started. Inadequate planning causes schedule delays and cost overruns and the procurement of the wrong kinds of technology. Straightening out that fundamental step in the procurement process is absolutely critical. When it comes to DHS, these costly procurement failures can produce grave consequences for the security of our nation.”
DHS was invited to send a witness to the hearing but requested additional time. The Committee will hold a second hearing, therefore, on July 21 to hear from the Department.
DHS has deployed nearly two thirds of the more than 2,100 radiation portal monitors identified in its deployment plan at established ports of entry and on the northern and southern borders. In addition, nearly 100 percent of cargo entering seaports and 100 percent of vehicle traffic on the southern and northern borders are scanned for nuclear material.
But cargo coming into this country by rail from Canada or Mexico is still not scanned, only a small percentage of international air cargo is scanned, and DNDO still has no plans to scan commercial aviation aircraft, passengers or baggage.
DNDO has spent $200 million trying to develop a new radiation detection technology – the ASP - that GAO has concluded is only marginally better than existing technology. The ASP may have drained resources from other programs, including development and deployment of mobile, portable or hand-held technologies that could screen other types of in-bound cargo or bulk shipments, like international trains and commercial aviation.