Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Homeland Security Fails To Protect America Again

Watching the Bush Administration fail at protecting America is a full time job for tens of thousands of Americans. I do this for about an hour a day, tops. I can't keep up, and it's hard to be outraged 24x7. One thing I do know is that someone should be watching the cargo that is being brought into this country. It's kind of a no-brainer, isn't it?

So here we go again:

Department of Homeland Security tests of new radiation detection machines last year did not show whether the costly devices performed well enough to be used as planned at ports and borders to protect the country against nuclear attacks or dirty bombs, according to a new report about the process.

The performance tests were organized by the department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which has been trying to deploy the machines along the borders and at ports in a $1.2 billion project, despite allegations from government auditors that the office misled Congress about their effectiveness and later conducted flawed tests to show they worked well.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had said the development and purchase of the machines was a "vital priority" for the department. Officials from the nuclear detection office had asserted the tests -- mandated by Congress before the project was allowed to move forward -- showed they worked well.

In the new report, the review team concluded that the testing last year was not able to show whether the machines, known as advanced spectroscopic portal radiation monitors, or ASPs, could "detect and identify actual objects that might be smuggled" into the country, according to portions of the report released by Congress.

"Even after collecting all available test results, it was difficult to form conclusions about operational effectiveness," the report said.


"We should not spend a single penny to install these machines at our ports and borders until valid testing is done to demonstrate that these costly new machines work significantly better than the existing radiation detectors," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the committee chairman.

The project to buy as many as 1,400 ASPs, which cost about $377,000 each, was announced in July 2006. A month later, Government Accountability Office auditors said the nuclear detection office greatly exaggerated the machine's capabilities in a report that spurred congressional approval of the project.

In response to those allegations, Congress mandated that Chertoff take the unusual step of personally certifying that the detectors represent a significant advance over existing detection equipment.

With that certification in mind, the nuclear detection office conducted tests in Nevada early last year. Those tests were called into question when GAO auditors found that department officials had allowed contractors to conduct "dress rehearsals" and calibrate their machines in anticipation of the tests.

Here's what we call "calibrate their machines in anticipation of the tests" in the real world--hardcoding. When you hardcode something so that it can pass a specific type of test, you haven't tested it. Calibrating the machines to detect a certain type of radiation simply means you're not adequately testing something that's supposed to pick up "everything" and all you're doing is fixing the results. All you're doing is putting your finger on the scale so everything weighs the same. Independent testing with the right methods is just plain old basic scientific method 101, and since our government hates science, they just fix the results and roll the dice and we're screwed, so no surprise there.

And, you'll be shocked and outraged to find out that none of this is news. From Sharon Weinberger at, an excellent article dated July, 2007:

...As one source warned me: "Some of the technology being proposed can't tell the difference between bananas and dirty bombs." Whether or not that's the case, it's clear the Department of Homeland Security is having problems with the detectors, the Washington Post reports.

Auditors from the Government Accountability Office later found that the detection rates of machines tested by the department were as low as 17 percent and no higher than about 50 percent. The auditors said the department's optimistic report to Congress on the cost and benefits of the machines was based on assumptions instead of facts -- a finding that prompted lawmakers to put the project on hold last year.

The $1.2 billion program was one of the key post-9/11 measures meant to beef up security, but the procurement process has run into a number of problems:

Homeland Security officials tested monitors made by 10 companies. But before the results of those tests were made available to Congress, auditors from the GAO, in March 2006, raised questions about the procurement process.

The auditors predicted cost overruns of as much as $596 million and said the "prototypes of this equipment have not yet been shown to be more effective than the portal monitors now in use." The auditors concluded that it "is not clear that the dramatically higher cost of this equipment would be worth the investment.

It doesn't sound like they've gotten their act together, nor will they, until we dismantle the Department of Homeland Security (another brilliant idea from Joe Lieberman) and put some government-loving competent adults in charge who are empowered to get rid of the dead wood and make things work.

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