Customs' radiation checks lacking

Despite efforts by the Customs Service to step up the detection of smuggled nuclear devices, the agency still has not installed radiation-detection equipment at every U.S. border crossing and port of entry, according to the General Accounting Office.

In a report delivered to Congress Oct. 17, GAO said that Customs' primary radiation-detection equipment — radiation pagers worn by most border inspectors — may be inappropriate for detecting the deadly radioactive components for a nuclear weapon.

"Customs has not yet deployed the best available technologies for detecting radioactive and nuclear materials at U.S. border crossings and ports of entries," said the report to the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

Since 1998, Customs has provided more than 4,000 pagers to its border inspectors and plans to deliver another 4,000 by September 2003. However, the radiation devices are not widely viewed as search instruments but "rather as personal safety devices to protect against radiation exposure," the report said.

Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner told the panel at a hearing that Customs has ratcheted up efforts to detect contraband before it gets to U.S. borders. In a series of policy changes, he said cargo is inspected at the port of departure, and shippers soon will be required to provide lists of their cargo electronically at least 24 hours before their vessels leave a foreign port.

"An important part of our strategy to address the nuclear and radiological threat is pushing our zone of security outward so that American borders are the last line of defense, not the first line of defense against such a threat," Bonner said.

The goal, Bonner said, is to prevent terrorists from using cargo containers to conceal nuclear weapons or radiological materials by deploying "sophisticated automated targeting technology to identify high-risk containers, those that may contain terrorist weapons or even terrorists."

There is still a long way to go, according to Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"Four hundred and one days have passed since the attacks on [Sept. 11], yet our ports and borders are not significantly more secure against nuclear smuggling than before the attacks," Tauzin said.

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