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The Homeland Security Department wants to buy new radiation detection equipment to use at the nation's ports. That's because alarms on the existing equipment are set off by bananas and kitty litter, and other things you might not think emit radiation but do. But congressional auditors say tests done on the new machines were biased, because the government shared key information with the companies providing the gear.
NPR's Pam Fessler has more.
PAM FESSLER: To House Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan, the problem with sharing information with vendors before their equipment is tested is obvious. At least that's what he suggested to one investigator with the Government Accountability Office.
Representative BART STUPAK (Democrat, Michigan): Here's the test. If I give you nine out of sixteen answers, I should be able to get the test right, right? At least a passing grade.
Mr. VAYL OXFORD (Director, Domestic Nuclear Detention Office, Department of Homeland Security): I should get a passing grade.
FESSLER: And that's what the GAO basically believes happened when the Homeland Security Department tested new radiation detection machines called Advanced Spectroscopic Portals, or ASPs. The agency conducted a number of dry runs with the vendors, using many of the same materials that were to be used in the actual tests.
Stupak yesterday told Vayl Oxford, head of Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, that this was a concern.
Rep. STUPAK: You agree, then, with GAO's testimony that by providing the vendors with the opportunity to adjust their software, that the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office used biased test methods and were not an objective assessment of the ASPs performance capabilities. Do you agree with that?
Mr. OXFORD: We disagree.
FESSLER: Oxford called the testing conducted by his agency thorough and rigorous, and said GAO has yet to see all the results.
The issue is crucial, because Congress is refusing to fund the $1.2 billion radiation detection program until Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff certifies that the new equipment is a significant improvement over machines now used at U.S. ports.
Oxford said initial tests already show benefits.
Mr. OXFORD: In a port like L.A. Long Beach, where they're getting 500 nuclear alarms per day, would go down to about 20 to 25 that they would have to pay serious attention to and secondary.
FESSLER: The means customs agents could spend a lot less time responding to so-called nuisance alarms, which are caused by benign substances that are naturally radioactive. It also means shippers would face fewer delays at the port. Kentucky Republican Ed Whitfield agreed with Oxford, that even though questions remain, the new machines are better than the existing detectors.
Representative ED WHITFIELD (Republican, Kentucky): Most of the scientists that - at least who we've talked to - and government officials agree that the agency should proceed with a limited deployment for secondary inspections.
FESSLER: And, in fact, Oxford said that's what will likely happen - at least until the agency can conduct further tests.
But lawmakers are increasingly frustrated. They're upset with constant delays and confusion in a program that the administration says is crucial for stopping nuclear devices from being smuggled into the country. In a written statement, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell said risks becoming another DHS procurement debacle.
Bark Stupak sought some reassurance from DHS's Vayl Oxford.
Rep. STUPAK: Are we making this up as we go along?
Mr. OXFORD: No, we're not.
Rep. STUPAK: Or do we have a plan here?
Mr. OXFORD: No, we're not. We will have a plan. We will have a test plan, as we've always have a good plan.
Rep. STUPAK: These two new plans you're planning on bringing up, are you going to run those by GAO to make sure that they're a valid tests?
Mr. OXFORD: Perhaps.
FESSLER: Not at all what the lawmakers wanted to hear.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.