Testimony, GAO probe reveal `blind spot' in cargo security

Investigators used forged papers to bring radioactive matter into U.S.


WASHINGTON -- A leading expert on cargo security told a Senate subcommittee yesterday that America is "not acting like a nation at war" when it comes to working to protect the country from radiological or nuclear materials.

Stephen E. Flynn, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that even the monitoring systems being installed at border crossings and seaports around the country won't catch everything a terrorist might try to smuggle in. Laying out a harrowing scenario in which a single weakness in the global supply chain could allow a dirty bomb to end up in a container traveling from Indonesia to Chicago, Flynn said "we are living on borrowed time" when it comes to cargo security.

"We have a version 1.0," Flynn said of the efforts so far to tighten security. "We need a version 2.0."

Former 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean, sitting beside Flynn, said that of all the panel's recommendations, the most important had to be keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists - since a nuclear attack, while not the most likely scenario, would have the most devastating consequences.

"We still do not have a maximum effort against what everybody agreed is the most urgent threat to the American people," Kean said.

As administration officials defended the improvements made in border and port security since the Sept. 11 attacks, senators from both parties said more must be done - especially after a Government Accountability Office report revealed that investigators had been able to bring small amounts of radioactive material across the borders from Mexico and Canada, with the help of forged documents.

Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs investigations subcommittee, said the problems highlighted by Kean and Flynn - as well as those listed in the GAO reports released yesterday - were "a massive blind spot" that must be fixed quickly.

"We must close the gap at our ports," Coleman said.

Cargo security - particularly at seaports - has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, since the outcry over Dubai Ports World's efforts to assume control of some port operations at several major U.S. ports, including Baltimore's. The company effectively bailed out this month, but shoring up security remains a priority on Capitol Hill. Coleman's committee will hold a second hearing tomorrow, and legislation is taking shape.

The GAO studies found potential weak spots in efforts to keep nuclear weapons out of the country, including the potential for corruption among local officials overseas - where the U.S. has begun installing radiation portal monitors in an effort to combat the problem from afar - and limitations of older technology that hinder the usefulness of some monitors.

The studies also found that the Department of Homeland Security is behind schedule for installing the monitors and could spend as much as $342 million more than the $1.3 billion budgeted for the program.

Eugene E. Aloise, a GAO investigator, said that as of December 2005, the agency had installed about 670 radiation portal monitors at seaports, border crossings and mail facilities, and plans to bring that total to more than 3,000 by 2009. To meet that goal, the agency would have to increase its installation rate from about 22 per month to 52 per month, which seems unlikely, Aloise said.

The director of Domestic Nuclear Detection Office at DHS, Vayl Oxford, said the government was taking the GAO's advice and working to accelerate installation. The new plan should result in 98 percent of containerized cargo crossing the southern border into the U.S. being screened for radiation by Oct. 1, with the same goal at seaports by Oct. 1, 2007. All cargo containers would be covered by the end of 2011, Oxford said.

When GAO investigators went undercover, they were twice able to come into the United States with the radioactive material, even though it set off radiation detectors at the crossings, because they had fake documents that indicated they were allowed to travel with the material. GAO officials said the material was enough to build a dirty bomb.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have no way to check those documents with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - a problem that an assistant commissioner at the agency, Jayson P. Ahern, said would be remedied quickly.

"Ports are far safer than they were before 9/11," Ahern said. "But we can and have to do more."


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