Closing the Door at the Ports
A flurry of money, research, and law aims to close a gap in the U.S. security net
DHS is also running into major snags on an effort to install $1.15 billion worth of more modern, reliable radiation monitors at U.S. ports by 2011. Chertoff said this summer that DHS had "begun to order the first 80" machines and looked forward to "starting to deploy" equipment this autumn. U.S. News has learned, however, that while the machines are out in the field, they've yet to be turned on.
Many say DHS has been slowed by critical reports from the Government Accountability Office. Auditors blasted DHS in October for not including the results of some 7,000 tests on the new monitors in a cost-benefit analysis sent to Congress justifying their purchase. Several tests, according to GAO, found that the most reliable model of the machines now being deployed could detect disguised, highly enriched uranium only 53 percent of the time.
Still, Vayl Oxford, DHS nuclear detection czar, stands by his work. "We tested [monitors] against some scenarios where we didn't expect them to find anything," he says. The department has obligated only $50 million of the $1.15 billion contract so far, and what Oxford calls "more definitive testing"-in concert with tweaking the machines-will be performed in the next few months. "We're on track," he says. "And I think this country will be a lot better off."
They certainly hope so in the Port Newark portion of the complex. On a recent afternoon there, it was clear why new machines, which are supposed to be able to distinguish between harmful and innocuous radiation, are so desperately needed. In a single hour, a row of 10 current-generation monitors was tripped by two shipments of granite from Italy, another one from India, and traces of radiation left over in one trucker's bloodstream from a heart stress test he took two weeks before. The newer machines are expected to save U.S. Customs 2.2 million work-hours each year by eliminating secondary inspections that must be done with unreliable hand-held nuclear detectors. Still, "I'm confident if a radiological device got in this place," McCabe says, "we'd find it." That's a lot of confidence for a man on the hot seat.