By Jon Fox
Global Security Newswire
March 26, 2007
The Homeland Security Department plans to enlist experts both inside and
outside the government to launch a program probing the vulnerabilities
of the nation's nuclear detection network.
The assessment would take place even as the United States continues to
develop its radiation detection systems and looks to invest more than $1
billion in next-generation detectors.
The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, a division within DHS, is hoping
that by employing independent experts it can garner a glimpse of the
current nuclear and radiological detection approach from a terrorist's
perspective, according to a description of the plan posted to a
government Web site last week.
These "Red Teaming Assessments" would be based solely on publicly
available information in order to identify vulnerabilities a terrorist
group might be able to locate with the same data.
The government's concern, which has grown astronomically since the
terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is that a group or individual could
smuggle either radiological or nuclear material into the United States
for use in a "dirty bomb" or an improvised atomic weapon. The Domestic
Nuclear Detection Office, just more than 2 years old, was launched to
specifically counter this threat.
"The goal is to identify vulnerabilities in the technology and
operational procedures and to identify sensitive open-source information
that, while unclassified, would prove useful to anyone attempting to
circumvent the global nuclear detection architecture," according to the
DHS is currently scanning 90 percent of inbound sea cargo at U.S. ports
for radiation. The department expects that number to reach 98 percent
for cargo at major domestic ports by the end of 2007. By 2008, nearly
all containers at U.S. ports are set to be scanned for radiation, DHS
officials have said. Radiation detectors are also being deployed at
major land border crossings into the United States.
Industry, academic and government experts would study existing gaps in
nuclear detection and those that could arise as the system develops,
according to the detection office's request for input. They would be
able to supplement data gleaned from open-source documents with
"surveillance, site penetration" and any other information they might be
able to independently elicit.
The efforts would result in both annual assessments and shorter-term
studies that would gauge potential vulnerabilities and suggest fixes on
a quarterly basis.
The nuclear detection office is asking experts over the next month
provide suggestions on the structure of such a study group and the
technological backgrounds of its members.
The DHS is also asking for input on ways the experts in the group could
collect information, conduct surveillance and probe the security at
sites legally and safely. Such activities could include simulated
smuggling or actual transport of radiological or nuclear material,
according to the DHS description of the planned program.
Unofficial tests of the system have shown weaknesses in the past. In
2002 and again in 2003, ABC News packed 15 pounds of depleted uranium
into a lead pipe and shipped it via sea container into the United States
to test U.S. detection capabilities.
In effect, study group members might be asked to play terrorist, probing
for information and physically testing the U.S. detection web. Homeland
Security officials are looking for an "accurate emulation of potential
threat actors, their likely source materials and courses of action,"
according to the DHS posting.
Red teaming, or employing government outsiders to play the role of
adversaries, is a fairly regular exercise employed by U.S. agencies,
said nuclear security expert Charles Ferguson, a fellow at the Council
on Foreign Relations.
Several years ago, Ferguson was part of a red team that was called to
consider how a terrorist group might launch a dirty bomb attack. During
that exercise the government also tapped the imagination of author Brad
Meltzer, a writer of popular thrillers set in Washington.
"I think it's a valuable exercise," Ferguson said. "It's a way to bring
in outside experts and just poke holes in what the government is trying
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the New America Foundation's Nuclear Strategy
and Nonproliferation Initiative, disagrees, suggesting they are likely
an ineffective way to predict real adversary responses.
"I just don't see any reason to assume that terrorists laboring under
real operational constraints would reach the same conclusions as a
predominantly white, male, sixty-something, upper-middle class panel
dominated by Ivy League graduates chatting over pastries and coffee,"
said Lewis via e-mail. "Many of these individuals are brilliant, but
none of them are terrorists."
The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office is testing three versions of a
next-generation radiation detector that it hopes would be able to detect
radiation and to identify the emitting isotope as harmless and naturally
occurring or a material of concern such as highly enriched uranium.
Present detectors do not distinguish between radiation-emitting
materials, requiring Customs and Border Protection officials to conduct
secondary screenings with a handheld scanner to determine the source of
Lawmakers have questioned whether the new machines, which carry a total
price tag of $1.2 billion, would serve to better protect the nation's
borders. Funding has been put on hold until the detector's increased
efficacy can be certified by DHS.
DHS officials say the next-generation technology would still be unable
to detect shielded highly enriched uranium, what experts say would
likely be the nuclear material of choice for a terror group trying to
assemble a simple nuclear device. Highly enriched uranium emits a
relatively weak nuclear signature.
Copyright 2007 by National Journal Group Inc. All rights reserved.
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