- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2003

The Bush administration's deployment of technology to detect nuclear and radiological materials and weapons smuggled into the country is "dangerously slow," key lawmakers said yesterday.
The government began installing radiation portal monitors along the borders and at ports in November, but, by the U.S. Customs Service's own assessment, only 5 percent of border entry points will be operational by the end of March.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to their colleagues and administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, calling the security measure a "fledgling effort."
"Given the war in Iraq and heightened risk of terrorist attack in the United States, existing gaps in our system to detect radiological and nuclear materials moving across our ports and borders require particularly urgent attention," the letter said.
It was signed by Reps. Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat and the panel's ranking member. Also signing the letter were Reps. James C. Greenwood, Pennsylvania Republican, and Peter Deutsch, Florida Democrat and chairman and ranking member of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations.
A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department declined to comment.
House committee staffers conducted an 18-month investigation to assess the threat of nuclear terrorism. They visited three foreign countries and toured two dozen ports of entry into the United States.
While the initial strategy to uncover nuclear threats was found to be "well-conceived," investigators reported an "inability to detect radiological or nuclear weapons imported into the United States."
The majority of ports rely on personal radiation pagers, devices small enough to wear on belts to signal when gamma radiation exceeds natural background levels.
However, the General Accounting Office has told the committee that the pagers have "limited range and are not designed to detect weapons-usable nuclear material."
Vehicles are directed to drive through the radiation portal monitors. The lawmakers said such monitors are needed immediately for the borders, and they urged Mr. Ridge to ask Congress for emergency funding.
Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security undersecretary, told Congress last week that the administration wanted to spend $60 million to purchase the radiation-detecting portals in the next fiscal year.
The cost to outfit all major points of entry is estimated as high as $500 million.
The Republicans and Democrats suggested the administration ask for half of the total funds in the emergency supplemental spending bill.
"Lack of adequate funding threatens to stymie the current efforts to secure our nation against nuclear terrorism," the letter said. "There is no doubt the risks are real. It has been widely reported that the CIA believes that nuclear terrorism is the number-one threat facing our country today."
The lawmakers noted progress with the continued installment of the portals but said "more needs to be done."
The Port of Norfolk, operated by the Virginia Port Authority, was the first to install the monitors last fall. A total of nine radiation portal monitors will be installed through the $1 million private-sector initiative.

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