WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., heard testimony Thursday indicating that one of the federal government’s major programs under development to protect the American people against the smuggling of nuclear material into the United States is so behind schedule its certification may again be delayed. At the Committee’s seventh hearing examining the government’s preparedness for nuclear terror, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) witness said new generation radiation portal monitors were over budget, behind schedule, and not meeting performance expectations.

At issue are the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal Monitors (ASP) and the Cargo Automated Advanced Radiography System (CAARS), which were meant to work in tandem to scan cargo for nuclear materials coming in at air, land, and sea ports of entry. Lieberman noted that the current generation radiation monitors and other measures – including improved intelligence about terrorist threats and loose nukes – now provide significantly more security than existed before September 11, 2001.
But of the new generation technology, he said, “These programs looked so promising when announced a few years ago. But now it seems that neither is likely to live up to expectations, which does leave our nation at risk – especially the unprotected areas that lay outside of the established land, air, and sea ports of entry.”

Eugene Aloise, Managing Director of GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment office, said an expected November certification of the ASP program was “looking less likely as time goes by” because of delays in the testing schedule. The Senate Appropriations Committee last year required Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to certify the program before additional funds would be released for it.

A GAO report requested by Senator Lieberman on the status of the radiation portal monitors found that the price of the ASPs has ballooned from an estimated $ 2 billion to between $3.1 and $3.8 billion. The GAO has also said that the ASP system is no more effective than the current radiation detection system.

The CAARS program has “essentially been abandoned,” Lieberman said, “following technical difficulties that would have made the system too complex to deploy in domestic ports…“Two years ago, ASP and CAARS were being described by the DNDO as absolute necessities in securing our nation against nuclear terrorism. They were going to represent DNDO 2.0.’’ Lieberman said. “Now, both are in jeopardy.”

Lieberman expressed strong interest in reviewing the acquisition process for next generation monitors to ensure that DNDO has the flexibility it needs. He also said deployment of several advanced portal monitors now warehoused would allow Customs and Border Protection officers to test them in an operational environment.

But he noted that two programs were so important to the nation’s homeland security that failure was not an option. “This Committee is not about ‘gotcha’ investigations,” he said. “It is about getting things right. We need to know how do we get DNDO on the right track?”