Nuke Detection Beat Goes On -- Redux
For months, Government Accountability Office auditors have been stymied in efforts to review data about a new generation of radiation detection equipment that Bush administration officials have described as vital to national security.
Hundreds of the machines, known as advanced spectroscopic portal radiation monitors, were to be bought and deployed now and in the coming years as part of a $1.2 billion homeland security project to screen trucks, cars and cargo containers at border crossings and ports. But the GAO has repeatedly questioned whether the machines work as billed and whether they're worth the $377,000 price tag. And the project has been stalled.
Request after request from the GAO for data generated by tests of the machines has been rebuffed by the Department of Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. Now the GAO appears to have found a back door leading to the information it wanted: It took a tough line with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which has been helping to compile and analyze the data for the nuclear detection office.
In a letter Friday, GAO General Counsel Gary Kepplinger took the unusual step of asserting GAO's "statutory right of access to agency records, such as these, that are necessary to conduct our work, including records which may be classified, sensitive..."
Kepplinger also asked for any "and all e-mails, notes, workpapers, correspondence, or other records" relating to allegations that someone at the nuclear detection office urged a national institute analyst to destroy relevant reports. A DHS officials said nothing nefarious was involved: At issue, they said, was the protection of sensitive information about the testing.
In response, the national institute chief counsel, Michael Rubin, agreed Friday to deliver the materials. The agency has already handed over some documents and data.
The GAO and DNDO have been at odds for more than a year over GAO allegations that homeland security officials misled Congress over the effectiveness of the machines. The GAO also questioned why the nuclear detection office gave vendors the contents of a test before evaluations of the costly machines, something that DHS officials said was standard procedure.
For an overview of the situation, read this recent story. Now it remains to be seen whether the data will help explain why efforts to test these machines and deploy them has been delayed for more than a year.
It's safe to say that investigators from the Hill and GAO will continue pressing the issue.
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