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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson December 20, 2012

Mutiple failures on multiple fronts

Detecting radioactive materials at U.S. ports remains a big challenge for federal officials.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to "develop technology that can detect radiation and determine the danger it poses, and he will work with the maritime transportation industry to integrate this technology into their operations so as to maximize security without causing economic disruption."

As we noted in our previous update, the Department of Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office spent years testing a new technology, the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal system, that was intended to improve the detection of threats while decreasing the number of false positives. The new system was designed to supplant radiation monitors currently used by Customs and Border Protection at ports of entry, as well as the handheld devices used today for secondary screening.

However, this next-generation system ran into technical difficulties and cost overruns.. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office reported that once testing became more rigorous, the machines "did not perform well enough to warrant deployment." As a result, DHS canceled the program in July 2012.

This failure only heightened the ongoing challenges the government was facing in fulfilling the requirement to scan 100 percent of all U.S.-bound cargo containers before they are placed on a vessel at a foreign port. This requirement was approved by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush as part of the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007.

The Secure Freight Initiative -- a pilot project aimed at testing the feasibility of 100 percent scanning -- has run into trouble. Customs and Border Protection implemented the initiative at six ports, but according to GAO, "logistical, technological, and other challenges prevented the participating ports from achieving 100 percent scanning," which led officials to reduce the program's scope to just one port.

Meanwhile, another program known as the Megaports Initiative, is facing severe funding cuts. Through August 2012, the federal government had spent $850 million on 42 projects in 31 countries, which is short of the 100 projects initially envisioned. The projects include equipping seaports with radiation detection equipment, training foreign inspectors and helping foreign governments operate and maintain the equipment. But the administration;s fiscal year 2013 budget proposes an 85 percent cut as well as a shift from establishing new ports to sustaining existing ones.

"Without a long-term plan for ensuring countries" ability to continue Megaports operations, (the federal government) cannot be assured that its $850 million investment will be sustained," GAO concluded. GAO also criticized a lack of coordination between Megaports and other, overlapping security initiatives.

This long list of challenges led Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to extend the deadline for 100 percent scanning by two years, to July 2014. But experts say that making even the delayed implementation schedule a reality is a longshot.

"The Obama administration has essentially maintained the inspection protocol developed under the Bush Administration of relying on a targeting algorithm to select a tiny percentage of containers for inspection by non-intrusive technology," said Stephen Flynn, the founding co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University.

How much cargo goes unscanned? The "vast majority -- over 95 percent," Kevin McAleenan, the acting assistant commissioner for the Customs and Border Protection office of field operations, testified before the House Homeland Security Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee on Feb. 7, 2012.

In fact, even though Customs and Border Protection currently has inspectors in 58 overseas ports for the stated purpose of collaborating with foreign officials, the U.S. is only inspecting about 2 containers per day in each of those ports, according to Flynn's calculations. For most cargo shipments, "as far as assurance of what we know in there, we have the manifests and the manifests only," said GAO's Stephen L. Caldwell at the House hearing.

Such a small inspection rate "does not represent much of a deterrent for preventing illicit activity within global supply chains," Flynn said. He added that the U.S. failure to inspect cargo overseas means that the only other option for inspecting cargo deemed suspicious is to scrutinize it at ports in the middle of highly populated U.S. cities with lots of critical infrastructure nearby.

The establishment of a 100 percent scanning goal in 2007 may have been unrealistic, but the federal government hasn"t even met more modest thresholds. The effort to beef up port security against bomb-ready radioactive materials has been beset by myriad challenges. We rate it a Promise Broken.

Our Sources

House Homeland Security Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, transcript of the hearing "Balancing Maritime Security and Trade Facilitation: Protecting Our Ports, Increasing Commerce and Security the Supply Chain," Feb 7, 2012 (accessed via Nexis)

Government Accountability Office, testimony of Stephen L. Caldwell before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, Sept. 11, 2012

Government Accountability Office, "Combating Nuclear Smuggling: Megaports Initiative Faces Funding and Sustainability Challenges," October 2012

Center for Strategic International Studies, "Inherent Insecurity at U.S. Ports," Sept. 7, 2012

Global Security Newswire, "Homeland Security Poised to Breach Port Cargo Screening Mandate," July 16, 2012

National Journal, "White House Slashes Funding for Megaports Program," Dec. 11, 2012

Email interview with Stephen Flynn, the founding co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University, Dec. 17, 2012

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson January 1, 2010

New maritime cargo scanners face problems, but work continues

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to "redouble our efforts to develop technology that can detect radiation and determine the danger it poses, [working] with the maritime transportation industry to integrate this technology into their operations so as to maximize security without causing economic disruption."

Improving detection of radiation at sea and land ports has been an ongoing challenge for federal officials. The United States has devoted more than $3 billion to this goal since 2002, and 98 percent of cargo arriving by sea -- and every vehicle entering the United States -- is now scanned for radiation, according to Global Security Newswire.
But the current technology has difficulty detecting radiation if it is well-shielded. In addition, nonthreatening items can produce false positive readings, forcing officials to waste time on fruitless secondary checks.
Officials with the Department of Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office are testing a new technology, known as the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal monitor system, that they hope will improve the detection of actual threats while decreasing the number of false positives. Outfitting ports with 1,400 of the new-generation machines would cost an estimated $1.2 billion.
In a fiscal year 2008 spending bill, Congress required that DHS affirm that the technology represents a significant improvement before moving ahead with full deployment. But scientists have expressed concerns that the new system may not offer significantly better results for the money.
In June 2009, the National Research Council said that the gains in accuracy may not justify the cost; the professional panel recommended that Homeland Security not proceed unless key concerns are addressed. Separately, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the testing has uncovered "multiple problems."
Homeland Security has also fallen behind its self-imposed schedule for meeting the requirements set by Congress.
With independent analysts concluding that the effort to develop improved radiation-detection technologies is experiencing troubles, we considered rating this promise Stalled. But as long as testing is continuing, we'll give the program the benefit of the doubt and rate it In the Works.

Our Sources

Global Security Newswire, " Homeland Security Misses Self-Imposed Schedule to Certify New Radiation Detectors ," Nov. 17, 2009
National Academy of Sciences, "New Detectors for Nuclear, Radiological Material in Cargo Should Not Be Acquired Until Testing Deficiencies Fixed, Cost-Benefit Analysis Completed" ( news release ), June 24, 2009
Government Accountability Office, " Combating Nuclear Smuggling ," May 2009
Department of Homeland Security, " Secretary Napolitano Announces Full Deployment of Radiation Scanning Technology to the Northern Border Ahead of Schedule ," Nov. 5, 2009

E-mail interview with Aaron Ellis, director of communications with the American Association of Port Authorities, Dec. 3, 2009

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