In a recent report on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) program to deploy advanced detectors of nuclear materials, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) focuses on minutiae and fails to recognize that the nation is terribly vulnerable to a nuclear device smuggled in by air, ground or sea. As a result of the GAO’s misguided efforts, Americans will be at greater risk from a terrorist nuclear device than need be the case.
GAO originally accused DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) of conducting biased testing, an accusation that the organization had to acknowledge later was untrue. Now, GAO asserts that DNDO failed to conduct a proper cost benefit analysis of the new sensors, which are more capable but also more expensive than existing systems.
What the GAO does not acknowledge is that the existing sensors at the nation’s borders underwent no testing before being deployed. Moreover, according to informed sources, these sensors have virtually no capacity to detect shielded material nor the capacity to differentiate a weapon being smuggled into the United States and a trailer full of ceramic tile from Mexico. The existing sensors are so inaccurate that they have a very high false alarm rate. There are reports that these rates are so high that Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) often ignore the monitors when they go off.
In 2007, DNDO organized and conducted the first structured and reliable test program of all nuclear detection monitors against real targets, not surrogates. According to DNDO’s director, Mr. Vayl Oxford, the new Advanced Spectrographic Portal (ASP) monitors are demonstrably better than existing systems. “As indicated by our test results to date, ASP systems are designed to provide significant improvements in performance compared to current systems, and being algorithm-based, have the capability to be continuously improved over time. DNDO and CBP believe that tests performed to date have shown that ASP systems provide enhanced detection and identification capabilities while improving the efficiency of the CBP scanning process.”
Rather than focusing on the important issues, such as the inadequacy of existing systems and ASP’s demonstrable performance, the GAO criticized DNDO for the quality of its cost-benefit analysis. Yes, the ASP sensors are significantly more expensive than current systems. However, the cost-benefit tradeoff between sensors that work and those that do not is infinite. So too is the cost-benefit tradeoff between detecting a smuggled nuclear device at the border and having it go off in one of America’s cities.
The intelligence community tells us that Al Qaeda is looking to acquire nuclear devices. This alone makes the DNDO mission one of the most important to homeland security. The ASP sensors are a significant improvement over current models. That alone makes them worth deploying now. At the same time, DNDO needs to be encouraged in its efforts to bring other new technologies to the fight against nuclear terrorism.
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