ASP Venom

In this week’s American Shipper magazine, Eric Kulisch provides us with an update on the highly-touted (and rigged) Advanced Spectroscopic Portal monitors we griped about in our Vol. XII, Art 38 commentary. Here’s how Eric begins his story.

“The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has quietly agreed to postpone for at least one year certification and production of next-generation radiation detection machines used in ports and other applications to check conveyances for nuclear material or weapons.”

This revelation about the ASP monitors appeared almost unnoticed on the House Energy and Commerce Committee Web site back on November 2nd.

“DHS has come under fire from the Government Accountability Office and Congress during the past year for using biased tests to promote the capability of ASP monitors designed to distinguish between dangerous and normal sources of radiation,” Eric reminds us.

Eric then continues with these words. “The GAO claimed that DHS limited the scope of the tests to gain good results, allowed contractors to recalibrate their machines with preliminary test data to improve their detection chances, and did not conduct realistic testing in which nuclear material is shielded, as it likely would be by real-world terrorists.

“Lawmakers accused the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office of rushing to deploy the machines to meet artificial deadlines, and repeatedly requested that DHS postpone full procurement until further blind testing could be completed to determine whether the machines are reliable and cost effective.

“DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff originally planned to certify the $ 1.2 billion program by June and dismissed the GAO claims. He said he would convene independent experts to examine the test results and in late August agreed to extend field validations until the end of October.”

DHS had indicated its intention to purchase 1,200 of the drive-by devices and bristled at the suggestions that the testing wasn’t rigorous. Secretary Chertoff then informed the committee that he decided to do more testing on the ASPs after the Customs and Border Protection said it encountered software problems during operational testing.

In a letter to Chertoff, Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., was quoted as saying, “It appears that DHS now agrees that the ASPs had inherent weaknesses that warrant major modifications to the equipment before it can be certified and deployed.”

Bart Stipnak, chairman of the oversight and investigations committee, added, “DNDO’s rush to deploy these ASPs is fundamentally unwarranted because U.S. Customs and Border Protection has technology which, although labor intensive, can detect radioactive materials that a terrorist might try to smuggle through our ports and borders.”

The Congressman asked DHS to provide specific information about the technical problems identified by CBP, DNDO’s test plans, whether vendors failed to meet all their contractual requirements, and whether Chertoff still plans to rely on the advice of an independent review team.

Congressmen are inclined to go easy on others in the service of the federal government. The GAO, on the other hand, tends to ‘tell it like it is’, and late in September we noted a report on this event that was headlined as follows:

“GAO: DHS cooks performance results for new radiation detectors.”

“The 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 entry …”

“The GAO threw water on DHS’s plan to engage outside scientists. ‘Because 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 — essentially computer variations. 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 ASP’s capabilities, in our view and those of other experts, computer simulations are not as good as actual testing with nuclear masking agents,’ the watchdog agency said …”

Which reminds us … Remember what George Mascolo wrote in DER SPIEGEL?
• “The business of fear in the United States 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 — roughly equivalent to the gross national product of new Zealand …
• “‘The market is growing at an incredible rate,’ gushes the Security Industry Association at its ‘networking lunch’ with members of Congress and administration officials …
• “‘The American news magazine US News & World Report calls the booming business ‘Washington’s version of a Turkish Bazaar’…
• “To 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 …

“According to a government study, thus far only four of the Department of Homeland Security’s 33 homeland protection systems are effective,” Mascolo wrote, “leading the new Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, to promise Congress that he’ll be taking a closer look at how the department spends its millions. But despite Chertoff’s promises, the booming industry’s prospects remain as rosy as ever. Indeed, the Secretary recently told a gathering of 400 industry executives that the government still needs their help. ‘We need to make America a safer place,’ he said — to roaring applause.” [Is it any wonder that Senator Byrd has called this whole thing a “hoax”?]