Testimony to urge stronger nuke security
By PETER URBAN
Connecticut Post Online
WASHINGTON — Three years and $5 billion later, federal authorities have failed to effectively block terrorist from smuggling nuclear materials into the United States, according to a report by congressional investigators.
David Maurer, an acting director at the Government Accountability Office, is scheduled to testify today before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the 3-year-old Domestic Nuclear Detection Office lacks an "overarching strategic plan" to prevent nuclear material from being smuggled into the country.
Trucks leaving the New York Container Terminal pass through an Advanced Spectroscopic Portal, April 11, 2007 in the Staten Island borough of New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Although DNDO has begun to address some of the gaps it identified in the 74 programs that make up the nation's shield against nuclear smuggling, gaps remain, according to Maurer's prepared testimony.
Bob Nesbit, a member of the Defense Science Board that examined the best strategies to employ against the threat of a terrorist using a weapon of mass destruction, is also expected to testify that the nation's borders have not been adequately secured.
"If a terrorist or rogue state somehow gains possession of a nuclear device and intends to use it against the United States, we are in big trouble," Nesbit said in prepared testimony given to the committee.
Nesbit, who works for the MITRE Corp., said that the Defense Science Board recommended that everything possible be done to prevent acquisition of nuclear material, since it would be very difficult to detect in transit, stop and secure such a device prior to detonation.
"The physics of the situation makes the sensor technology quite challenging, and if the perpetrator is clever and uses shielding, non-obvious entry paths and transit means, or employs salvage fusing to initiate the weapon upon detection; it would make detection prior to detonation even less likely," Nesbit said in his prepared testimony. "A terrorist group that was adept enough to acquire a nuclear device should be assumed to have a similar skill level in carrying out the attack."
Among the gaps that the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office has begun to address, Maurer said are: studying the feasibility of equipping border patrol agents with portable radiological and nuclear detection equipment along the border; working with the Coast Guard to develop and expand detection capabilities in marine environments; and developing nuclear and radiological detection capabilities to scan non-commercial flights into the country.
These pilot programs are "a step in the right direction," but "are not being undertaken within the larger context of an overarching strategic plan," according to Maurer.
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who chairs the committee, said Tuesday that the Department of Homeland Security "must develop a reliable means to assure the American people that major investments in this architecture will, in fact, make us measurably safer against catastrophic nuclear terrorism."
Lieberman said that the idea behind a "layered system of defenses" is that each point of the system provides another opportunity to detect and thwart terrorists intent on smuggling nuclear materials into the country.
"But the system we have in place today is not complete. Our global nuclear detection architecture may have both needless redundancies and/or dangerous gaps. Even if each program was working precisely as planned, holes may exist in this layered security net that may allow determined terrorists to get their hands on weapons grade nuclear material and bring it to the United States," Lieberman said.