DHS to Spend $300 Million on Troubled Radiation Detectors
Policy + Politics

DHS to Spend $300 Million on Troubled Radiation Detectors

The Department of Homeland Security plans to spend more than $300 million over the next four years on radiation-detection equipment that has not been fully tested and may not work, according to a budget request and an unreleased report by the Government Accountability Office.

The department’s plan is the latest in a series of efforts involving the troubled Advanced Spectroscopic Portal machine, which was touted by the George W. Bush administration as an advanced way to prevent the importation of radioactive materials that could be used in a nuclear or dirty bomb.

In January, the National Academy of Sciences released a report that found there was no way to know whether the machines, known as ASPs, worked as promised. An academy panel found that in promoting the machines to Congress, the department’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office had presented its findings “in ways that are incorrect and potentially misleading.”

That report followed the department’s decision to abandon plans to use ASPs for primary screening at ports and borders because of such questions.

Now, the nuclear detection office said it intends to buy up to 400 ASPs by 2016, according the office’s budget request, even though the department has not fulfilled internal requirements to conduct an independent review of the results of ASP testing before buying the equipment, according to the new GAO report.

Homeland security officials responsible for testing and evaluation do not plan to conduct such an independent assessment, the GAO found.

The department had said such assessments would be mandatory for large technology projects, as part of acquisition reforms adopted in response to chronic problems with the ASP program and other high-cost systems.

The GAO said that without such an assessment, the department lacks “the input it needs to determine whether ASP is ready to progress toward production and deployment. This is especially important, given that program’s troubled history.”

Department officials agreed with the GAO on the need for an independent assessment, the report said. But the department told the GAO that it is reviewing the ASP program and that no new tests of the machines have been scheduled, the report said.

“The bottom line is that the ASP program has cost the department five years in the race to strengthen the nation’s domestic defenses against nuclear terrorism,” said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, who has long reviewed the program. “At this point, it is critical that the department begin working on a plan B for accelerating improvement in the performance of current generation radiation portal monitors.”

The ASP program was promoted as one of the Bush administration’s top national security efforts. In 2006, Congress approved $1.2 billion for the machines. But GAO investigators and congressional overseers discovered that the nuclear detection office had underestimated the costs, overstated the benefits and provided misleading information to Congress.

Congress required that the homeland security secretary personally certify the effectiveness of the machines before deployment. Preliminary tests of the machines in recent years revealed numerous problems.

In February 2010, Obama administration officials told Lieberman that they had decided to sharply scale back the ASP program because of continuing questions about its costs and performance.

But in February this year, department officials said in a budget document that they intended to use the machines widely for secondary screening. The department said that “between 300 and 400 ASP systems are required to complete the currently planned build-out.”