Senators demand a better plan for nuclear detection

A Homeland Security office is spending money without a clear strategy and has little to show for two costly radiation detector projects, lawmakers charge.

Senators on Wednesday blasted a nuclear detection unit for failing to develop a strategic plan, and asked officials to produce one as soon as possible.

The Homeland Security Department has spent nearly $4 billion on aspects of a system to find illicit radiological and nuclear materials, but has yet to complete a comprehensive strategy for the project, the Government Accountability Office testified during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.

DHS Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute told lawmakers the department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office is working on a draft document, to be published before the end of the calendar year. But Dec. 31 won't be soon enough, said committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine.

"We cannot wait another eight years, or even eight months," Collins told Lute. November would be a good target, said Lieberman, adding it would be "encouraging" if DNDO published the plan sooner than expected.

Lieberman and Collins also said DNDO has little to show for hundreds of millions of dollars spent on two projects originally expected to produce the next generation of radiation detection technology: the advanced spectroscopic portal and the cargo advanced automated radiography system. The advanced spectroscopic portal now is considered to be a possible tool only for secondary scanning. And in 2007, the office scrapped acquisition and deployment plans for CAARS machines.

The CAARS project was cut short when Border Patrol agents told DNDO acquisition officials the technology was too big for primary inspection lanes and would only cause delays in the flow of commerce. Asked why Homeland Security spent millions of dollars on technology that was operationally flawed, Lute responded, "It's inexcusable."

"What I can tell you, senator, is that we have fixed that problem," she said. "We have established an acquisition system that fully integrates the needs of the operators with the acquisition system itself. We have introduced points along that system for active engagement and oversight. We have introduced an operation testing phase as well, and that's a field testing phase to prevent these things from happening."

Furthermore, the senators questioned Lute on a GAO charge that funding requests for the cargo advanced automated radiography system did not truthfully reflect the status of the program. The office's budgetary justifications for fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2011 included an ongoing CAARS testing campaign that was to produce a cost-benefit analysis. But DNDO officials acknowledged to GAO that in canceling the acquisition part of the program in 2007, they also put an end to plans to conduct a cost-benefit analysis.

"At a time when we are scrutinizing the budget, squeezing every dollar, if we can't rely on the credibility of the information provided by the department for a program that nearly three years ago was abandoned, that's very serious," Collins said.

Lieberman and Collins asked Lute to respond in writing to GAO's allegations concerning the questionable budgetary justifications.