More on nuclear smuggling story...

While I was busy interviewing some foreign officials downtown today, apparently a public affairs person with the National Nuclear Security Administration took issue with my story, and called demanding an immediate 'correction.'

I did goof in calling one agency the National Nuclear Safety (rather than Security) Administration, but the rest of the complaint appears to good PR.

The person also mentioned in his complaint that he will be a guest at the Media Research Center gala dinner tomorrow (our parent org). I look forward to speaking with him in person about this. I have emailed him some key points.

Here are the graphs he took issue with:

"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 given last year by officials with the Domestic Nuclear Detection office and the National Nuclear Security Administration.
One GAO report states: “DOE, DOD, and State 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, who told the Associated Press "The equipment operates itself. It's not going to be someone standing at the controls pressing buttons and flipping switches." 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 complaint emphasized one of the 3 recently released GAO reports deals exclusively with land ports. And that seaports, and the Megaports initiative (which the AP report referred to) is something different entirely.

It appears a misreading the paragraphs occured.

First the "concerns raised" refer to GAO reports (plural) *and* Congressional testimony, both of which clearly show concern over corruption of foreign operators of the radiation scanning equipment remains a serious concern --at both land ports AND seaports. There is simply not room in the story to quote from all the corroborating documents, but multiple sources were established for this.

The land port GAO report was a companion report to their seaport report which raised the very same concerns over corruption of foreign port security personnel charged with operating radiation detection machines. (That makes for a total of four GAO reports on the issue).

Ergo, since corruption of foreign operators and reliance on foreign operators has been clearly expressed as a concern at both land ports and sea ports, by both the GAO reports, the hearing, and security experts and politicians, it does raise legitimate questions about Wilkes' remarks. (Common sense would anyway.) The AP story went on to list some of those legitimate questions. [see below]

Key points:

**The landport GAO report is a companion report to their seaport report.
**Also- seaports featured prominently in the related hearing, and in the official press release from Sen. Norm Coleman and Sen. Carl Levin, therefore raising of the seaport issue is relevant.
**Also- Stephen Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander gave testimony at the hearing.

Furthermore, Senate staffers characterized the hearings and revelations as not exclusively land port-based, but as the culmination of a “three-year, bipartisan investigation of the detection equipment.”

Also, there is an established (and logical) precedent in media, government and amongst national security experts to compare issues related to radiation scanning across the board: at seaports, land ports and airports. For example, the May 8, 2005 New York Times story “U.S. to Spend Billions More To Alter Security Systems” opened with “After spending more than $4.5 billion on screening devices to monitor the nation's ports, borders, airports, mail and air, the federal government is moving to replace or alter much of the antiterrorism equipment, concluding that it is ineffective, unreliable or too expensive to operate.” Some of the technology as well as procurement issues related to backscatter X-ray technology, neutron interrogation and various forms of applied spectroscopy as well as the issue of contraband being shielded and foreign corruption, have common themes across the ports –whether they be land, sea or air.

By the way, I'm also digging for info from NNSA and Wilkes on deals made with China on port scanning equipment because a little birdie told me the DOE (of which the NNSA is part) has broken the law. I've apprised the Wilkes of the allegations and look forward to his response, and what my further research turns up. The 'birdie', a conservative at a think tank told me "Apparently someone at DOE broke the law on this big time."

While I'm unclear as yet whether the allegations pertain to the China scan deal in the Bahamas (which is what I was initially told) or a deal to place radiation equipment in a China port, the source said "Apparently the deal not only is fishy but violates federal law and involves the transfer of the technology to China without going through the proper export controls."

Since then, Wes Vernon has written a (too) short story indicating that negotiations with China resulted in their driving a hard bargain and insisting that we buy the scanning equipment from them, followed by their insistence we share (transfer) the technology with (to) them since they don’t actually have the tech to build these particular scanners.

The allegation also mentions that scientists and engineers from Los Alamos have been ordered to go to China to help facilitate the technology transfer and that they’re concerned they are being ordered to engage in illegal activity.

This first report of the allegations, is quoting Dr. Peter Leitner as the source. He is not quoted here as saying the deal is illegal, but the story does state: “Leitner says the legality is questionable at best. DOE is using a post-Cold War law that created a Materials Protection Control and Accounting Program (MPC&A) 'for the purpose of trying to account for putting some controls on nuclear material from the former Soviet Union.' It was never intended for this kind of situation with China, he says. 'They [DOE] decided to use a program that is completely inappropriate for these kinds of activities,' the counterterrorism expert adds. So what is DOE's rationale for making a bad deal where we end up paying (you and I are paying — this is taxpayers' money, remember) and that could compromise our security? Replies Dr. Leitner, who is also a professor of the Research Program at George Mason University: 'It's their mission to get these scanners located in different ports around the world, and they'll do it by hook or crook. Little pinheads with a mission, and they'll use laws, break laws, and everything else.'"

Leitner has given testimony on Capitol Hill and currently serves, I believe, as Senior Strategic Trade Advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Meanwhile, here are a few more points showing the concerns about foreign operation of scanning equipment has been expressed about both land ports and seaports:

***The GAO seaports report stated: “Once DOE finishes installing radiation detection equipment at a port and hands control of the equipment over to the host government, the United States no longer has control over the specific settings used by the equipment or how the equipment is used by foreign government customs officials. Settings can be changed to decrease the number of nuisance alarms, which may also decrease the probability that the equipment will detect nuclear material. Additionally, foreign customs officials may decide not to perform secondary inspections when alarms sound in order to increase the flow of traffic through a port. Therefore, the level of effective use of the equipment is unclear.”

*** Consider the testimony of David Huizenga, Assistant Deputy Administrator for the Office of International Material Protection and Cooperation/Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation/National Nuclear Security Administration to the House Committee on Homeland Security/Subcommittee on Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attack/Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Science and Technology; dated June 21, 2005. In this report DH discusses the Second Line of Defense program which is dedicated “to prevent smuggling of nuclear and radiological material at international seaports, airports and land border crossings.” The Megaports initiative, is of course, part of the Second Line of Defense program. DH states “[T]he effectiveness of the installed equipment is fundamentally determined by how it is used on the ground by the host country personnel. The very best equipment available is ineffective if it is ignored, incorrectly calibrated, improperly maintained or easily bypassed by corrupt or incompetent operators.”

Now, here's more on the AP story that quoted Wilkes (and which I referenced in the story) about the deal with a Chinese company to scan U.S.-bound shipping containers in the Bahamas: "A lawmaker who helped lead the opposition to the Dubai ports deal isn't so confident. Neither are some security experts. They question whether the U.S. should pay a foreign company with ties to China to keep radioactive material out of the United States. "Giving a no-bid contract to a foreign company to carry out the most sensitive security screening for radioactive materials at ports abroad raises many questions," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y......

Rep. Bennie Thompson, the senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said President Bush ``needs to explain what safeguards are in place at foreign ports to assure that operators are not jeopardizing our security.'' ``If a port operator has been identified as posing a potential threat to national security, it is only common sense that Americans should be working on site to assure U.S. security is taken seriously,'' Thompson said late Thursday. `

`If the President needs more U.S. Customs inspectors to get the job done, I'd be happy to lead the charge to get however many is needed to keep America safe.'' A low-paid employee with access to the screening equipment could frustrate international security by studying how the equipment works and which materials set off its alarms, warned a retired U.S. Customs investigator who specialized in smuggling cases.

``Money buys a lot of things,'' Robert Sheridan said. ``The fact that foreign workers would have access to how the United States screens various containers for nuclear material and how this technology scrutinizes the containers - all those things allow someone with a nefarious intention to thwart the screening.''

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