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U.S. Borders Vulnerable, Witnesses Say

New York Times | June 21, 2005
By ERIC LIPTON

The federal government's efforts to prevent terrorists from smuggling a nuclear weapon into the United States are so poorly managed and reliant on ineffective equipment that the nation remains extremely vulnerable to a catastrophic attack, scientists and a government auditor warned a House committee on Tuesday.

The assessment, coming nearly four years after the September 2001 attacks and after the investment of about $800 million by the United States government, prompted expressions of frustration and disappointment from lawmakers.

"If we go ahead and spend the money and don't succeed, I don't understand that," said Representative Steve Pearce, Republican of New Mexico.

Four federal departments - Homeland Security, Defense, Energy and State - are involved in a global campaign to try to prevent the illicit acquisition, movement and use of radioactive materials, which includes efforts to prevent theft of nuclear materials from former Soviet stockpiles and inspecting cargo containers on arrival from around the world.

Dirty bombs, crude devices that widely spread low levels of radiation, are relatively easy to detect. But highly enriched uranium, a crucial ingredient in a nuclear bomb, could easily be shielded with less than a quarter-inch of lead, making it "very likely to escape detection by passive radiation monitors" now installed at ports and border stations, Benn Tannenbaum, a physicist and senior program associate at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, testified at Tuesday's hearing.

The monitors are unable to distinguish between naturally occurring radiation from everyday items like ceramic tile and dangerous material like enriched uranium.

"It has been, let me say, a bad few years," Dr. Tannenbaum said.

Customs officials also at times allow trucks to pass through the monitors too quickly, said Gene Aloise, an official from the Government Accountability Office. And because the devices sound so many false alarms, Mr. Aloise said, their sensitivity has been turned down, making them less effective still.

Nationally, less than a quarter of the radiation detection devices needed to check all goods crossing the borders have been installed, federal officials said. In New York, for example, none of the cargo that moves through the largest ship terminal or goods leaving the port by rail or barge are inspected for radiation, Bethann Rooney, manager of security for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, testified.

The problems extend beyond the borders, witnesses said. About half of the monitors given to one former Soviet state were never installed or put into use. A monitor that the State Department gave to Bulgaria was set up on an unused road. And sea spray and winds at some ports overseas may have compromised the detection equipment, Mr. Aloise said.

Richard L. Wagner Jr., a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and chairman of the Defense Department task force on preventing a clandestine nuclear attack, agreed that the radiation detection systems installed across the United States were "quite limited in their capabilities and, in general, are insufficient to the task." But the situation, Dr. Wagner said, is not surprising given the rapid start up of the effort.

"There will be false starts and there will be money wasted," he said.

Representative Jim Langevin, Democrat of Rhode Island, asked how Homeland Security should apportion $125 million in the coming fiscal year between buying more of the same radiation monitor technology and supporting research into better technology. Two witnesses called for putting the detection equipment on ships, so threats could be identified before reaching the United States.

Members of Congress have also recently questioned a proposal by the Bush administration to spend $227 million in the coming year to create a Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, skeptical that it will do more than add a new layer of bureaucracy.

"I am not too hopeful about this situation," Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, said.

 

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