[Paleopsych] NYT: (The Omni-incompetent State, Part 114): U.S. to Spend Billions More to Alter Security Systems
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Sun May 8 14:58:06 UTC 2005
U.S. to Spend Billions More to Alter Security Systems
New York Times, 5.5.8
By ERIC LIPTON
WASHINGTON, May 7 - After spending more than $4.5 billion on screening
devices to monitor the nation's ports, borders, airports, mail and
air, the federal government is moving to replace or alter much of the
antiterrorism equipment, concluding that it is ineffective, unreliable
or too expensive to operate.
Many of the monitoring tools - intended to detect guns, explosives,
and nuclear and biological weapons - were bought during the blitz in
security spending after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In its effort to create a virtual shield around America, the
Department of Homeland Security now plans to spend billions of dollars
more. Although some changes are being made because of technology that
has emerged in the last couple of years, many of them are planned
because devices currently in use have done little to improve the
nation's security, according to a review of agency documents and
interviews with federal officials and outside experts.
"Everyone was standing in line with their silver bullets to make us
more secure after Sept. 11," said Randall J. Larsen, a retired Air
Force colonel and former government adviser on scientific issues. "We
bought a lot of stuff off the shelf that wasn't effective."
Among the problems:
¶Radiation monitors at ports and borders that cannot differentiate
between radiation emitted by a nuclear bomb and naturally occurring
radiation from everyday material like cat litter or ceramic tile.
¶Air-monitoring equipment in major cities that is only marginally
effective because not enough detectors were deployed and were
sometimes not properly calibrated or installed. They also do not
produce results for up to 36 hours - long after a biological attack
would potentially infect thousands of people.
¶Passenger-screening equipment at airports that auditors have found is
no more likely than before federal screeners took over to detect
whether someone is trying to carry a weapon or a bomb aboard a plane.
¶Postal Service machines that test only a small percentage of mail and
look for anthrax but no other biological agents.
Federal officials say they bought the best available equipment. They
acknowledge that it might not have been cutting-edge technology but
said that to speed installation they bought only devices that were
readily available instead of trying to buy promising technology that
was not yet in production.
The department says it has created a layered defense that would not be
compromised by the failure of a single device. Even if the monitoring
is less than ideal, officials say, it is still a deterrent.
"The nation is more secure in the deployment and use of these
technologies versus having no technologies in place at all," said
Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.
Every piece of equipment provides some level of additional security,
said Christopher Y. Milowic, a customs official whose office oversees
screening at ports and borders. "It is not the ultimate capacity," he
said. "But it reduces risk."
Some critics say that even though federal agencies were pressed to
move quickly by Congress and the administration, they made some poor
choices. In some cases, agencies did not seek competitive bids or
consider cheaper, better alternatives. And not all the devices were
tested to see how well they worked in the environments where they
would be used.
"After 9/11, we had to show how committed we were by spending hugely
greater amounts of money than ever before, as rapidly as possible,"
said Representative Christopher Cox, a California Republican who is
the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. "That brought us what
we might expect, which is some expensive mistakes. This has been the
difficult learning curve of the new discipline known as homeland
Radiation at Seaports
One after another, trucks stuffed with cargo like olives from Spain,
birdseed from Ethiopia, olive oil from France and carpets from India
line up at the Port Newark Container Terminal, approaching what looks
like an E-ZPass toll gate.
In minutes, they will fan out across the nation. But first, they pass
through the gate, called a radiation portal monitor, which sounds an
alarm if it detects a nuclear weapon or radioactive material that
could be used to make a "dirty bomb," a crude nuclear device that
causes damage by widely spreading low levels of radiation.
Heralded as "highly sophisticated" when they were introduced, the
devices have proven to be hardly that.
The portal-monitor technology has been used for decades by the scrap
metal industry. Customs officials at Newark have nicknamed the devices
"dumb sensors," because they cannot discern the source of the
radiation. That means benign items that naturally emit radioactivity -
including cat litter, ceramic tile, granite, porcelain toilets, even
bananas - can set off the monitors.
Alarms occurred so frequently when the monitors were first installed
that customs officials turned down their sensitivity. But that
increased the risk that a real threat, like the highly enriched
uranium used in nuclear bombs, could go undetected because it emits
only a small amount of radiation or perhaps none if it is
"It was certainly a compromise in terms of absolute capacity to detect
threats," said Mr. Milowic, the customs official.
The port's follow-up system, handheld devices that are supposed to
determine what set off an alarm, is also seriously flawed. Tests
conducted in 2003 by Los Alamos National Laboratory found that the
handheld machines, designed to be used in labs, produced a false
positive or a false negative more than half the time. The machines
were the least reliable in identifying the most dangerous materials,
the tests showed.
The weaknesses of the devices were apparent in Newark one recent
morning. A truck, whose records said it was carrying brakes from
Germany, triggered the portal alarm, but the backup device could not
identify the radiation source. Without being inspected, the truck was
sent on its way to Ohio.
"We agree it is not perfect," said Rich O'Brien, a customs supervisor
in Newark. But he said his agency needed to move urgently to improve
security after the 2001 attacks. "The politics stare you in the face,
and you got to put something out there."
At airports, similar shortcomings in technology have caused problems.
The Transportation Security Administration bought 1,344 machines
costing more than $1 million each to search for explosives in checked
bags by examining the density of objects inside. But innocuous items
as varied as Yorkshire pudding and shampoo bottles, which happen to
have a density similar to certain explosives, can set off the
machines, causing false alarms for 15 percent to 30 percent of all
luggage, an agency official said. The frequent alarms require airports
across the country to have extra screeners to examine these bags.
Quick Action After 9/11
Because the machines were installed under tight timetables imposed by
Congress, they were squeezed into airport lobbies instead of
integrated into baggage conveyor systems. That slowed the screening
process - the machines could handle far fewer bags per hour - and
pushed up labor costs by hundreds of millions of dollars a year. At
busy times, bags are sometimes loaded onto planes without being
properly examined, according to several current and former screeners.
"It is very discouraging," said a screener who worked at Portland
International Airport until last year, but who asked not to be named
because he still is a federal employee. "People are just taking your
bags and putting them on the airplane."
Equipment to screen passengers and carry-on baggage - including nearly
5,000 new metal detectors, X-ray machines and devices that can detect
traces of explosives - can be unreliable. A handgun might slip through
because screeners rely on two-dimensional X-ray machines, rather than
newer, three-dimensional models, for example. The National Academy of
Sciences recently described the trace detection devices as having
"limited effectiveness and significant vulnerabilities."
As a result, the likelihood of detecting a hidden weapon or bomb has
not significantly changed since the government took over airport
screening operations in 2002, according to the inspector general at
the Department of Homeland Security. Transportation security officials
acknowledge that they cannot improve performance without new
technology, but they dispute suggestions that no progress has been
"We have created a much more formidable deterrent," said Mark O.
Hatfield Jr., a spokesman for the Transportation Security
Administration. "Do we have an absolute barrier? No."
Counting machinery and personnel, aviation screening has cost more
than $15 billion since 2001, a price that Representative John L. Mica,
Republican of Florida, says has hardly been worthwhile.
"Congress is the one that mandated this," Mr. Mica said. "But we
should have done more research and development on the technology and
put this in gradually."
Concerns Despite Reliability
Some screening equipment has performed reliably. Machines that test
mail at the United States Postal Service's major processing centers
have not had a single false alarm after more than a year, officials
said. But the monitors detect only anthrax, which sickened postal
workers in 2001. And only about 20 percent of mail is tested - mostly
letters dropped into blue post boxes, because they are considered the
most likely route for a biological attack.
In about 30 major cities, equipment used to test air is also very
precise: there have been more than 1.5 million tests without a single
false positive. But only about 10 monitors were placed in most cities,
and they were often miles apart, according to the inspector general of
the Environmental Protection Agency. Detecting a biological attack,
particularly one aimed at a specific building or area, would require
perhaps thousands of monitors in a big city.
In addition, as contractors hurried to install the devices before the
start of the war with Iraq - the Bush administration feared that
Saddam Hussein might use biological weapons on American cities - they
were often placed too low or too high to collect satisfactory samples,
the inspector general noted. The monitors use filters that must be
collected manually every day before they can be analyzed hours later
at a lab.
"It was an expedient attempt to solve a problem," said Philip J.
Wyatt, a physicist and expert on biological weapons monitoring
equipment. "What they got is ineffective, wasteful and expensive to
Homeland security officials say that they have already moved to
address some of the initial problems, and that they are convinced that
the monitoring is valuable because it could allow them to recognize an
attack about a day sooner than if they learned about it through
victims' falling ill.
At the Nevada Test Site, an outdoor laboratory that is larger than
Rhode Island, the next generation of monitoring devices is being
In preparing to spend billions of dollars more on equipment, the
Department of Homeland Security is moving carefully. In Nevada,
contractors are being paid to build prototypes of radiation detection
devices that are more sensitive and selective. Only those getting
passing grades will move on to a second competition in the New York
Similar competitions are under way elsewhere to evaluate new
air-monitoring equipment and airport screening devices. That approach
contrasts with how the federal government typically went about trying
to shore up the nation's defenses after the 2001 attacks. Government
agencies often turned to their most familiar contractors, including
Northrop Grumman, Boeing and SAIC, a technology giant based in San
Diego. The agencies bought devices from those companies, at times
without competitive bidding or comprehensive testing.
Documents prepared by customs officials in an effort to purchase
container inspection equipment show that they were so intent on buying
an SAIC product, even though a competitor had introduced a virtually
identical version that was less expensive, that they placed the
manufacturer's brand name in the requests. The agency has bought more
than 100 of the machines at $1 million each. But the machines often
cannot identify the contents of ship containers, because many everyday
items, including frozen foods, are too dense for the gamma ray
technology to penetrate.
The federal government will likely need to spend as much as $7 billion
more on screening equipment in coming years, according to government
"One department charged with coordinating efforts and setting
standards will result in far better and more efficient technologies to
secure the homeland," said Mr. Roehrkasse, the Department of Homeland
Some experts believe that this high-priced push for improvements is
necessary, saying the war against terrorism may require the same sort
of spending on new weapons and defenses as the cold war did.
"You are in a game where you are continually upgrading and you will be
forever," said Thomas S. Hartwick, a physicist who evaluates
But given the inevitable imperfection of technology and the vast
expanse the government is trying to secure, some warn of putting too
much confidence in machines.
"Technology does not substitute for strategy," said James Jay
Carafano, senior fellow for homeland security at the Heritage
Foundation, a conservative think tank. "It's always easier for
terrorists to change tactics than it is for us to throw up defenses to
counter them. The best strategy to deal with terrorists is to find
them and get them."
Matthew L. Wald contributed reporting for this article.
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