Agreeing to Disagree

From The Washington Post (Sept. 19, 2007) …ìExperts say U.S. nuke scan rules ëunworkableíî.

ìLONDON (Reuters) ñ New rules that will require the scanning of all cargo containers imported to the United States, a move to stop nuclear weapons being shipped in, are expensive, unnecessary and misguided, industry and security experts said.

ìThe law. approved by U.S. President George W. Bush last month, requires that by 2012, all seaborne containers must be screened for radiation before they leave port for the United States to check they do not contain weapons.

ìCongress backed the bill, which implements recommendations following the September 11, 2001 attacks, despite objections from the Department of Homeland Security, the European Commission, shipping organizations and many U.S. trading partners.

ìëWe know that Al Qaedaís aim is to obtain a nuclear weapon and detonate it in our country,í U.S. Democratic Rep. Edward Markey, a leading advocate of the law, said on his Web site.

ìëFailing to screen and seal all cargo overseas doesnít just miss the boat ó it could also miss the bomb, with devastating consequences for our country.í

ìWhile the White House has doubts over the lawís feasibility, such that the Homeland Security secretary can extend the 2012 deadline every two years if necessary, it shares the same fears.

ìëOur greatest concern with respect to a cargo-borne threat is a terrorist attempting to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction into our country,í U.S. Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff told a Senate Committee last week.

ìWhilst happy to improve cargo security, the industry is bitterly opposed to the plans. The U.S.-based World Shipping Council (WSC) said about $ 500 billion of annual U.S. commerce would be affected.

ìIt said global trade bodies objected ëbecause the legislation is not only unworkable but that the Congress failed to even try to address fundamentally critical questions about how such a system would actually operate.í

ìUnanswered questions range from who would pay for and maintain the necessary equipment at more than 600 ports worldwide, to who would actually carry out the scanning. Markey has said he opposed allowing shippers do the screening.

ìAdhering to the measure would cost ëbillions and billions,í necessitating massively expanded port capacity, said Simon Bennett of the International Chamber of Shipping.

ìëItís not possible to do 100 percent scanning in the way they suggest,í he told Reuters. ëAt least, not possible to do it without disrupting world trade as we know it.í

ìIn the meantime, shipping groups hoped other governments would put pressure on the United States. The European Union has already voiced its opposition, saying experts saw little security whilst legitimate EU and U.S. businesses would suffer.

ìAnalysts also argue the nuclear threat is unrealistic and say the risk of maritime terrorism has been overstated.

ìëA big bang, a nuclear weapon sailing into a harbor and being detonated there ó that is highly unlikely, thatís very improbable,í said Dr. Peter Lehr, an expert in maritime terrorism at Scotlandís St. Andrews University.

ìTrying to detect a nuclear warhead amongst the thousands of containers being shipped to the United States everyday would be like ëlooking for a needle in a haystack,í he told Reuters.

ìOn the other hand, there would be false alarms as products ranging from ceramic tiles to cat litter give off radiation.

ìëThis is ridiculous. The chances of Al Qaeda getting their hands on a nuclear weapon are nil,í another senior maritime terrorism expert, who wished to remain anonymous, told Reuters.î

[Now that youíve digested this Reuterís article, read what the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed last week …]

ìGAO: DHS cooks performance results for new radiation detectorsî is how the story begins.

ìCongressional auditors reiterated Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security should postpone a decision on full-scale procurement of advanced radiation detection machines until further testing can determine whether the next-generation technology can be relied upon to prevent cross-border transit of nuclear weapons and materials.

ìThe Government Accountability Office has charged DHS with using biased test results to promote the capability of Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) monitors that can distinguish between dangerous and normal sources of radiation in ocean containers and large trucks at ports of entry.

ìThe Domestic Nuclear Detection office ëconducted numerous preliminary runs of almost all of the materials, that were used in the formal tests and then allowed ASP contractors to collect test data and adjust their systems to identify these materials. It is highly unlikely that such favorable circumstances would present themselves under real world conditions,í the GAO said in prepared testimony for the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

ìDNDO has ASP development and procurement contracts for 1,200 detection machines with Raytheon Co.-Integrated Defense Systems, Thermo Electron Corp., and Canberra Industries.

ìThe GAO also charged that tests were too easy because DNDO did not use lead or other materials that terrorists would likely use to shield any radioactive material hidden in a conveyance. DNDO rejected recommendations from the Department of Energy and national laboratories to conduct more rigorous testing with masking agents because of concerns about meeting the original deadline for DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff to certify the machines by June 26.

ìIn August, the chairmen of the Senate and House Homeland Security committees called on DHS to postpone the $ 1.2 billion acquisition of large-scale nuclear radiation monitors for ports and other facilities until questions about their reliability, performance and effectiveness have been resolved. They asked DHS to involve the GAO in evaluating the program. But DNDO Director Vayl Oxford stood by the organizationís ëvery rigorous test campaigní at the hearing and it will work to better explain the test approach and results.

ìThe GAO has criticized DHS in the past year for moving ahead with the acquisition even though testing has shown that the Advanced Spectroscopic Portals frequently fail to identify the type of radioactive isotopes detected, making them no better than current technology at sorting containers with products emitting natural radiation and those that might contain a radioactive weapon or fissile material. The watchdog agency also has criticized DNDOís cost-benefit analysis for relying on assumptions about performance levels rather than actual tests.

ìEarlier this year, Congress requested the GAO audit the reliability of the radiation portal monitors in operational settings. DHS is conducting field tests with the next-generation machines at the New York Container Terminal; Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach; Laredo, Texas; and Detroit. The goal is to reduce the number of nuisance alarms and trucks that have to undergo secondary inspections.

ìOxford said he anticipates nuisance radiation alarms to drop from about 500 at the Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach to roughly 25 per day that inspectors would have to double-check with the new devices.

ìChertoff has said he will consult independent technical experts about the ASP test results before moving ahead with certifying that the systems are superior and worth procuring.

ìPaul Schneider, undersecretary for management at DHS, told the subcommittee that field validations have been extended two months to obtain more data and that certification will not take place until the end of October.

ìThe GAO threw water on DHSís plan to engage outside scientists. ëBecause of concerns raised that DNDO did not sufficiently test the limitations of ASPs, DNDO is attempting to compensate for weakness in the original test plan by conducting additional studies ó essentially computer simulations. While DNDO, Customs and Border Protection and DOE have now reached an agreement to wait and see whether the results of these studies will provide useful data regarding the ASPsí capabilities, in our view and those of other experts, computer simulations are not as good as actual testing with nuclear masking agents,í the watchdog agency said.

ìëWe believe that DNDOís test methods ñ specifically, conducting dry runs and dress rehearsals with contractors prior to formal testing ñ enhanced the performance of the ASPs beyond what they are likely to achieve in actual use. Furthermore, the tests were not a rigorous evaluation of the ASPís capabilities, but rather a developmental demonstration of ASP performance under controlled conditions which did not test the limitations of the ASP systems,í the report said …î

ìMeanwhile, another group of federal investigators reported that cost overruns and mismanagement by the DOE have delayed completion of a facility sought by DHS to test sensors for detecting radiation at the nationís ports of entry.

ìASPs that can detect and differentiate radiation in large shipping containers and trucks are among the types of technology that DHS planned to evaluate and train personnel at the facility … but the project was halted two-thirds of the way through in August 2006 because contractor Bechtel had burned through $ 30 million of the $ 33 million available funds … Auditors also faulted the agency for unquestioningly accepting Bechtelí assurances that the project was on schedule and within budget … DHS is now considering contracting the remaining work to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers …î

ìëEven if an effective fix is implemented, completion of the project will have been significantly delayed and the cost will have substantially exceeded original estimates. More importantly, the delay may impact the nationís testing capability to detect nuclear and radioactive materials in a variety of circumstances,í the inspector general said.î

[Remember what George Mascolo wrote in DER SPIEGEL last year? Itís worth repeating:

ï ìThe business of fear in the United States of America has been booming ever since September 11, 2001, and the price tag for the protective cordon of high-tech gadgetry intended to keep the U.S. safe from more terrorist attacks is enormous … The total 2005 Homeland Security budget weighs in at a whopping $ 50 billion ó roughly equivalent to the gross national product of New Zealand …
ï ìëThe market is growing at an incredible rate,í gushes the Security Industry Association at its ënetworking lunchí with members of Congress and administration officials …
ï ìThe American news magazine US News & World Report calls the booming business ëWashingtonís version of a Turkish Bazaarí …
ï ìTo this day, the harbor nuclear detectors are incapable of distinguishing between bombs and kitty litter or bananas, leading frustrated customs officials to simply shut them down. The new $ 1.2 billion explosives detectors for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a part of Homeland Security, are equally unreliable …

ìAccording to a government study, thus far only four of the Department of Homeland Securityís 33 homeland protection systems are considered effective, leading the new Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, to promise Congress that heíll be taking a closer look at how the department spends its million. But despite Chertoff;ís promises, the booming industryís prospects remain as rosy as ever. Indeed, the Secretary recently told a gathering of 400 industry executives that the government still depends on their help. ëWe need to make America a safer place,í he said ó to roaring applause.î [In the Congressional Record, remember, Senator Byrd called this a ìhoaxî.]