Combatting nuclear smuggling

My latest story:
‘Dirty’ Bomb Material ‘Easily’ Smuggled Into US in Test
By Sherrie Gossett

- Radioactive material for two ‘dirty’ bombs was “easily” smuggled across both the northern and southern U.S. borders in December by government investigators testing border security, according to newly released documents. The five-month undercover operation, conducted by the Government Accountability Office was detailed in a redacted report and triggered calls by senators for rapid improvement in port security. The full report remains classified.

On Dec. 14, 2005, two teams of investigators driving rental cars made simultaneous border crossings at the Canadian and Mexican borders. In the trunk of each car were two containers of an unnamed radioactive material. If combined with explosives such as dynamite, the result is a ‘dirty’ bomb, which spreads radioactive contamination when it detonates. Preventing terrorists from making and detonating a ‘dirty’ bomb in a U.S. city has been a key national security objective since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.

The investigators’ two cars passed through radiation detection portals at both borders. While the presence of radioactive material was detected, border officers simply made copies of the drivers’ licenses and related documentation that the undercover investigators handed them.

The documents presented had been forged by investigators using off-the-shelf computer software and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) documents available on the Internet. The phony documents included a counterfeit bill of lading and a counterfeit NRC document. The GAO report indicates that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents never questioned the authenticity of the documents, which stated that the undercover investigators had been authorized to possess and transfer the radioactive material.

The investigators purchased the radioactive material and containers by phone, using a fictitious company, and had it shipped to Washington, D.C. One investigator claimed he was buying the material to “calibrate personal radiation detection pagers.” The purchase was not challenged because suppliers are not required to determine whether prospective buyers have legitimate purposes for their purchase, the GAO said. Radioactive sources have a host of applications in industrial, medical and research areas as well.

Suppliers are also not required to ask a buyer to produce an NRC document when they purchase in small quantities. More than two years ago, the GAO recommended steps for issuing of licenses to ensure that sealed radioactive materials would not be purchased before the NRC had verified the intended use of the materials, the report stated. However, the NRC failed to implement those recommendations, according to the GAO.

Following the successful ‘smuggling’ operation, the GAO held review briefings with CBP and NRC officials in December and January. The officials agreed to work together to come up with a way to verify the authenticity of NRC documents.

CBP personnel conduct inspections at the nation’s 154 land border ports of entry to determine the admissibility of travelers and to prevent the transport of illegal substances and weapons of mass destruction into the country.

The GAO also released two other reports detailing weaknesses and challenges in the governments’ efforts to deploy radiation detection equipment within the nation and overseas. Some of those challenges, such as proper maintenance and calibration of detection equipment, reliance on foreign border security personnel and weaknesses of current technologies have already been detailed in congressional testimony delivered last year by officials from the Domestic Nuclear Detection office and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

One GAO report states: “DOE (Department of Energy), DOD (Department of Defense) and State (Department) officials told us they are concerned that corrupt foreign border security personnel could compromise the effectiveness of U.S.-funded radiation detection equipment by either turning off equipment or ignoring alarms.”

The concerns raised seem to contradict a statement made last week by Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the U.S. National Nuclear Safety Administration. He told the Associated Press that "the equipment operates itself.”

“It's not going to be someone standing at the controls pressing buttons and flipping switches," Wilkes reportedly said. The comments were made in defense of a no-bid contract being negotiated with a Chinese company to control radiation scanning of U.S.-bound shipping containers in the Bahamas

The GAO report indicates the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has made progress in deploying radiation equipment but that some goals are unrealistic and the program cost estimate is uncertain.

The DHS has already deployed 670 portal monitors (about 22 percent of its goal) and over 19,000 pieces of hand-held radiation equipment, the reports states. The deployment of the portal monitors has become bogged down by DHS’ cumbersome review process, making it unlikely that the goal of deploying 3,034 by September 2009 will be met, according to the GAO.

The GAO has recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security work with other agencies to streamline and expedite the internal review procedures that precede deployment of the portal monitors.

The investigations were undertaken by the GAO at the request of U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who is chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The panel held a hearing on the findings Tuesday.

“The reality is that it is easier to buy low grade radioactive material for a dirty bomb than it is to buy cold medicine that has been restricted due to the meth epidemic,” Coleman said.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said the GAO reports were an “alarming wake-up call.”

House and Senate Democrats Wednesday unveiled their plan for U.S. security, called “Real Security.”

Commenting on the GAO reports, Jennifer Crider, press secretary for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), told Cybercast News Service that “the Republican Congress has chosen time and time again to not do the things that we know would work to keep Americans more safe.”

“What Democrats want to do is to ensure that we’ve screened at our ports, that our borders are secure and that we take the actions necessary to keep Americans safe,” Crider added Posted by Picasa