DHS seeks help investigating nuclear detection gaps

By Jon Fox

March 26, 2007

The Homeland Security Department plans to enlist experts both inside and outside the government to launch a program probing the vulnerabilities of the nation's nuclear detection network.

The assessment would take place even as the United States continues to develop its radiation detection systems and looks to invest more than $1 billion in next-generation detectors.

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, a division within DHS, is hoping that by employing independent experts it can garner a glimpse of the current nuclear and radiological detection approach from a terrorist's perspective, according to a description of the plan posted to a government Web site last week.

These "Red Teaming Assessments" would be based solely on publicly available information in order to identify vulnerabilities a terrorist group might be able to locate with the same data.

The government's concern, which has grown astronomically since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is that a group or individual could smuggle either radiological or nuclear material into the United States for use in a "dirty bomb" or an improvised atomic weapon. The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, just more than 2 years old, was launched to specifically counter this threat.

"The goal is to identify vulnerabilities in the technology and operational procedures and to identify sensitive open-source information that, while unclassified, would prove useful to anyone attempting to circumvent the global nuclear detection architecture," according to the program description.

DHS is currently scanning 90 percent of inbound sea cargo at U.S. ports for radiation. The department expects that number to reach 98 percent for cargo at major domestic ports by the end of 2007. By 2008, nearly all containers at U.S. ports are set to be scanned for radiation, DHS officials have said. Radiation detectors are also being deployed at major land border crossings into the United States.

Industry, academic and government experts would study existing gaps in nuclear detection and those that could arise as the system develops, according to the detection office's request for input. They would be able to supplement data gleaned from open-source documents with "surveillance, site penetration" and any other information they might be able to independently elicit.

The efforts would result in both annual assessments and shorter-term studies that would gauge potential vulnerabilities and suggest fixes on a quarterly basis.

The nuclear detection office is asking experts over the next month provide suggestions on the structure of such a study group and the technological backgrounds of its members.

The DHS is also asking for input on ways the experts in the group could collect information, conduct surveillance and probe the security at sites legally and safely. Such activities could include simulated smuggling or actual transport of radiological or nuclear material, according to the DHS description of the planned program.

Unofficial tests of the system have shown weaknesses in the past. In 2002 and again in 2003, ABC News packed 15 pounds of depleted uranium into a lead pipe and shipped it via sea container into the United States to test U.S. detection capabilities.

In effect, study group members might be asked to play terrorist, probing for information and physically testing the U.S. detection web. Homeland Security officials are looking for an "accurate emulation of potential threat actors, their likely source materials and courses of action," according to the DHS posting.

Red teaming, or employing government outsiders to play the role of adversaries, is a fairly regular exercise employed by U.S. agencies, said nuclear security expert Charles Ferguson, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Several years ago, Ferguson was part of a red team that was called to consider how a terrorist group might launch a dirty bomb attack. During that exercise the government also tapped the imagination of author Brad Meltzer, a writer of popular thrillers set in Washington.

"I think it's a valuable exercise," Ferguson said. "It's a way to bring in outside experts and just poke holes in what the government is trying to do."

Jeffrey Lewis, director of the New America Foundation's Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative, disagrees, suggesting they are likely an ineffective way to predict real adversary responses.

"I just don't see any reason to assume that terrorists laboring under real operational constraints would reach the same conclusions as a predominantly white, male, sixty-something, upper-middle class panel dominated by Ivy League graduates chatting over pastries and coffee," said Lewis via e-mail. "Many of these individuals are brilliant, but none of them are terrorists."

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office is testing three versions of a next-generation radiation detector that it hopes would be able to detect radiation and to identify the emitting isotope as harmless and naturally occurring or a material of concern such as highly enriched uranium.

Present detectors do not distinguish between radiation-emitting materials, requiring Customs and Border Protection officials to conduct secondary screenings with a handheld scanner to determine the source of the alert.

Lawmakers have questioned whether the new machines, which carry a total price tag of $1.2 billion, would serve to better protect the nation's borders. Funding has been put on hold until the detector's increased efficacy can be certified by DHS.

DHS officials say the next-generation technology would still be unable to detect shielded highly enriched uranium, what experts say would likely be the nuclear material of choice for a terror group trying to assemble a simple nuclear device. Highly enriched uranium emits a relatively weak nuclear signature.

By Jon Fox

March 26, 2007