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."

By Robert O'Harrow |  August 16, 2007; 5:41 AM ET security
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Quick question: is there any new information in this blog or is it a redux of the article. I read both and I feel cheated.

Posted by: JoeyR | August 16, 2007 8:15 AM

Quick Question: If JoeyR only complains, why does he keep reading the blog. Would love to get any pertinent insight from him and his posts. I feel cheated reading his posts.

Posted by: WS | August 16, 2007 10:45 AM

Quick Answer: This blog is a farce and doesn't deserve the effort of any reader to make insightful comments when the author doesn't do any work of his own or even understand the topic. Therefore, I feel it a duty to point out the extremely little value of this blog at every opportunity. In case folks don't know, this acquisition stuff means a whole lot to a lot of people: the warfighter, the taxpayer, and shareholders. We should stop treating it as sensational headlines based on conflict and get on with discussing something that matters.

Until the quality of this blog improves or the blog is shuttered, I will continue to point out its absurdity. I care and will not allow this blog to continue to besmirch those of us who do in the name of sensationalism or just laziness.

Does anybody honestly disagree that today's blog (like most other days) is the same information that was in his article? Further, does anybody honestly disagree that all of these blogs are basically he said/she said transcripts with snarky assertions posited at the end?

Perhaps Mr. O'Harrow could redeem himself to me with a writing assignment. Tomorrow, please enlighten us about why the different people mentioned in your article/blog are intervening in the ways that they are? Why are Dingell and Stupak choosing this program to investigate when there are so many other programs worthy of attention? Do they distrust DHS estimates and testing? Has DHS failed in the past to adequately plan and report on acquisitions? Are they assisting a campaign donor who is waiting in the wings to take over the program? Is this a long standing disagreement with the way DHS tests and estimates? Why is DHS afraid to have GAO look over their shoulder?

If that doesn't seem good: perhaps Mr. O'Harrow could write about how other programs estimate costs and perform testing? This can't be the only program in DHS or the same sensor program where cutting edge technology is a problem. Perhaps even a little bit on what DTRA does and why they would be appropriate to help out.

I'll be waiting - but my guess is that we'll get another post about another article that somebody else wrote. At least it will be Friday.

Posted by: JoeyR | August 16, 2007 12:29 PM

This is an interesting and, dare I say, fairly screwed up program. There's been dithering between factions in DHS and in a triangle with GAO and its Congressional bosses. This--to detect the most fearsome threat there is.
The three vendors of the technology now being debated (see today's article by Robt. O'Harrow) are Raytheon, Canberra Systems (Connecticut), and ThermoElectron. Interestingly, on the day contracts were awarded 13 months ago, neither Secretary Chertoff nor his program chief could say what the period of the pilot test was. Again, the detectors are for the most important terrorist threat we have. Maybe they could put a "rush" on it....

Posted by: Michael Lent | August 16, 2007 1:33 PM

Wouldn't Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration be a more appropriate choice than DTRA? NNSA's mission statement is:
"NNSA has four missions with regard to National Security:
To provide the United States Navy with safe, militarily effective nuclear propulsion plants and to ensure the safe and reliable operation of those plants. To promote international nuclear safety and nonproliferation.
To reduce global danger from weapons of mass destruction.
To support United States leadership in science and technology."

I wonder why they picked DTRA.........

Posted by: Kate | August 16, 2007 1:41 PM

JoeyR, if you are so passionate about this, why not start your own blog? Your absurd comments add nothing, shed no light on the issues, and are just mean spirited.

Posted by: WS | August 16, 2007 1:45 PM

NNSA probably wouldn't be a good choice. Several of the people who stood up the DNDO came from there. There is also a bit of a turf war between the two groups, with NNSA thinking that DNDO has "stolen" part of their mission. NNSA may not be able to be an impartial arbiter.

Posted by: WS | August 16, 2007 1:48 PM

WS - great insight on the NNSA and DNDO. As an outsider to DHS, this is the kind of information that is helpful. I assume that you would agree that GAO doesn't provide great oversight for this type of need, but who does? Is DTRA a valid alternative? My experience with them has been mostly as you would describe NNSA. Perhaps the true problem is that there really isn't a true, neutral 3rd party who can give honest assistance/oversight when needed and because of it PMs who are pushed by unrealistic funding and schedule constraints find it easy to conservatively estimate risks and cost.

My comments are not intended to be mean spirited and I admit that many do not shed light on an issues. My point was strictly that the only light shed on this blog is by accident on the part of the readers in spite of the author. And I give credit when its due. But given that I feel his posts are generally negative and sensational in tone, which is harmful to honest improvement for the less informed - I feel as I have no alternative than criticize the author.

And by the way - who says I don't have my own blog.

Posted by: JoeyR | August 16, 2007 2:09 PM

I am not sure about DTRA. I haven't worked with them in a while, and mostly that was only tangentially. Oversight of a program like this is notriously hard, especially with cutting edge technologies that haven't been completely field tested yet. If we as a nation are going to get something that works, we have to be able to let the companies that can do this sort of thing experiment a bit, and we have to accept that experiments sometimes fail. But it is through that process that we eventually arrive at a product that works.

And, I would be very interested in JoeyR's blog. . .if indeed there is one. . .

Posted by: WS | August 16, 2007 2:22 PM

The choice of DTRA as the "impartial arbiter" makes me wonder what kind of deals have been made behind the curtain. Hasn't DTRA made some very large public blunders recently?

"The Wall Street Journal reported on 24 May 2002 that US-funded rocket conversion programs may have no rocket fuel to eliminate. Although the US firms ATK Thiokol Propulsion and Bechtel National Inc. won US contracts to help Russia eliminate rocket fuel from dismantled ballistic missiles, the Russian government found other uses for the fuel while elimination plants were under construction. ATK Thiokol built a conversion plant in Krasnoyarsk to convert 30,000t of liquid heptyl rocket fuel into dimethylamine, which has commercial applications. Bechtel National Inc. constructed facilities in Krasnoyarsk and Aleksin (south of Moscow) to eliminate amyl and melange oxidizers. However, bureaucratic delays and problems with infrastructure, such as electricity supply, have delayed the projects to such an extent that the Russian government found other uses for the rocket fuel components."

That account was from which is Sam Nunn's website, and CTR is his pet project.

Posted by: Kate | August 16, 2007 2:25 PM

In the debate of DNDO vs DTRA vs NNSA, ignores the true experts in nuclear detection, the scientists at Los Alamos, Livermore, Oak Ridge and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories. It should be the real scientists, not bureaucrats, who do the impartial evaluation. Another option would be to have a few universities conduct the evaluation.

Posted by: MB | August 16, 2007 2:39 PM

I strongly agree with MB.

I wonder how much funding DTRA will get to perform this analysis, and how much they will contract out (incurring management fees that would have been avoided if the work went directly to the National Labs).

Posted by: Kate | August 16, 2007 2:43 PM

Program managers need more freedom to struggle for solutions many of which won't work, but that is different than failure. We fail ourselves by allowing buying into unachievable success. Both the government and most certainly the contractor community are complicit in this.

I feel as though the truth to this program is like most others, somewhere in the middle. I'd bet you a coffee that that the estimates at the beginning were unrealistic, the technical risks were minimized, and the schedule was moved to the right in order to justify funding/starting the program. Now that there are problems - its a "failed" program.

I doubt anybody did anything fraudulently or incompetently (but who knows), but in order to have the opportunity for success, it had to be assured at the beginning. How many programs start out underfunded - a lot. After all, congress doesn't fund programs often anymore that are slow, expensive, and risky no matter how important the payoff - unless there's a powerful consistency involved.

DoD used to lead the world in developing cutting edge technology because of the open experimentation and failure WS mentions. Now the consumer market is leading (wireless, information management/sharing, nanotech, etc) this technology development because of the high financial payoffs in the commercial marketplace. We have to get back to finding the right balance.

Posted by: JoeyR | August 16, 2007 2:54 PM

MB is absolutely right - A quick look at the Oak Ridge site shows that they too are working cutting edge sensors to detect nuclear materials ( The question becomes - what mechanism is there to exploit common capabilities - either in an oversight role or as risk reduction? Unless my world is different, most PMs I know would prefer to work in a black box and not have to coordinate with anybody.

Semi-related topic for another day is portfolio management - I wonder how many other agencies have duplicative missions and are wasting funds and time developing slight variations of the same product. How many agencies are developing sensor nets to do what DHS is attempting to accomplish?

Posted by: JoeyR | August 16, 2007 3:09 PM

One thing to consider before jumping on the National Labs bandwagon. They are getting their money from NNSA, DNDO and DTRA. They are "quasi-feds", and not contractors in the true sense of the word. Since they are getting money from these agencies, can these "real scientists" really be trusted, or will they advocate for work for the labs?

Posted by: WS | August 16, 2007 3:32 PM

They again have the cart before the horse. How do they know how much the program will cost if they haven't decided on what technology will work? They need to have the best nuclear monitoring companies compete to come up with a demonstration of their technologe and a price for x number of detector systems, then decide on how much the program will cost and where the $ will come from. Oak ridge and another gov lab should set the criteria and do the evals as a team.

Posted by: sam miller | August 17, 2007 10:04 PM

They again have the cart before the horse. How do they know how much the program will cost if they haven't decided on what technology will work? They need to have the best nuclear monitoring companies compete to come up with a demonstration of their technologe and a price for x number of detector systems, then decide on how much the program will cost and where the $ will come from. Oak ridge and another gov lab should set the criteria and do the evals as a team.

Posted by: sam miller | August 17, 2007 10:04 PM

They again have the cart before the horse. How do they know how much the program will cost if they haven't decided on what technology will work? They need to have the best nuclear monitoring companies compete to come up with a demonstration of their technologe and a price for x number of detector systems, then decide on how much the program will cost and where the $ will come from. Oak ridge and another gov lab should set the criteria and do the evals as a team.

Posted by: sam miller | August 17, 2007 10:05 PM

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