Nukes, Monitors and Questions
I have a story in The Post today reporting that tensions continue to simmer between Congress and the Department of Homeland Security over a $1.2 billion contract for new radiation monitors to screen trucks, cars and cargo containers for signs of nuclear weapons.
Congress and the department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, or DNDO, have been at odds for awhile over how to develop, buy and deploy machines that in many ways are supposed to protect the country from that most-feared threat: A mushroom cloud.
This is tough, technical stuff. A lot of this has to do with an increasingly common question: When you're dealing with cutting edge technology, where do you go to get advice and avoid getting a load of costly lemons? Whose word do you trust?
Based on a litany of technology failures in recent years, those are harder questions to answer than it might seem, particularly when there's more pressure on the government than ever to adopt new technology for everything from garden variety services to homeland security and national defense.
At issue here is how DNDO is going about testing the new kind of detectors, which rely on cutting edge, sometimes delicate technology. The Government Accountability Office has been raising issues about the testing and the effectiveness of the machines for a couple of years. Here's a story that appeared in The Post this summer.
In one particularly critical report, GAO auditors said the department relied on optimistic assumptions about the machines instead of their own much less promising test results. After getting that cost-benefit report last summer, Congress released money for the project. Days later, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and the head of the nuclear detection office announced the $1.2 billion contract, with some fanfare, at a press conference. (The GAO turned up the assumptions only later.)
Members of Congress were miffed. Now they're trying to ensure that GAO, their investigative arm, can examine everything DNDO does before the the project moves forward. The department and DNDO, meanwhile, are pushing back. They contend that they're doing a good job with a very difficult task.
Chertoff said he would get an independent review from a DoD operation called Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which has experience looking at such things. But some lawmakers are saying that's a ploy to avoid real scrutiny.
In a sharply worded letter to the under secretary for management last week, the chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce took issue with a plan announced by the department two weeks ago to have an outside review of the project and test results by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
Chairman John D. Dingell and another lawmaker said in the Aug. 10 letter that it appeared as though the homeland security department was trying to do "an 'end run' with hastily planned and initiated 'independent review,'" instead of allowing the GAO finish a study that is expected to be critical of the department's initiative. The GAO's report is expected to be delivered to Congress later this month.
"On its face, it would appear such efforts are nothing other than an attempt to lessen the impact of potentially bad news from the GAO report," said the letter signed by Dingell and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.)
Yesterday, lawmakers on the Homeland Security committees in the Senate and House also sent a letter to Chertoff that raised questions about the department's plans for the outside review. That letter urged the department to cooperate with the GAO study, saying that "an independent evaluation by GAO will best serve the oversight responsibilities of Congress and ensure public confidence in your ultimate decision."
In a statement, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said that there is "no doubt in my mind that Secretary Chertoff wants what we all want: to make sure that DNDO's first major investment is a good one."
"He has a difficult decision to make," Lieberman said. "It involves some highly technical issues. Getting a second opinion from a panel of experts can only be helpful. We also need GAO to do what it does best: ask the tough questions and provide Congress with the facts. That is the best way to ensure that this critical program succeeds."
Here's what Russ Knocke, spokesman for the department, had to say in response to the Dingell letter:
"It is disturbing that their letter places emphasis on bureaucratic process, seemingly to preserve political turf, rather than on achieving meaningful results.
"We want to involve the very best experts in the field. We want to hear from them directly and independently about their findings. That is why the department has asked the Defense Threat Reduction Agency for an independent review of the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal system. They
will bring unparalleled scientific and analytic expertise to this project.
"There is ample reason to be concerned that the GAO lacks the critical experience and expertise necessary for a project of this magnitude. Further, it is troubling that the letter does not make the case for why the GAO would perform better than the Defense Threat Reduction Agency,
or what technical expertise the GAO would bring to such a review?
"In addition, there is no basis for their cost speculation associated with an independent review. Other assertions in the letter demonstrate a misunderstanding about the purpose for an independent review to begin with, or are completely unfounded arguments about the timing and basis
for seeking the review.
"We will of course keep Congress apprised as we move forward."
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