Tuesday, September 19, 2006

0 to 60 in a flash?

I'm confused, not generally (as my critics will doubtless claim), but, specifically, by something DHS is claiming now. Appropriately, there's been a lot of pressure (some of it from lowly me) on the department to move toward 100% inspection for radiation of cargo containers destined for U.S. seaports. At present, DHS acknowledges that only about 5-6% of containers are "inspected," meaning, run through an x-ray like "VACIS" machine to spot anomalies that merit a closer look and, in fewer instances, physically opened and searched (for, among other things, radioactive material). Even less than 5-6% of containers are, then, scanned for radiation as a practical matter.

Yet, Secretary Chertoff and his aides have taken lately to claiming that, by the end of the year, 80% of containers will be scanned for radiation, and by the end of next year, about 98%. (See Chertoff's testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on September 12.)

First of it, it wasn't so long ago (see, for example, Deputy Secretary Jackson's testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee last spring) that DHS was supportive only of the goal of inspecting 100% of containers for radiation after they arrived at our ports, but before they left those ports for parts inland. Oregon Democratic Congressman Defazio raised the commonsensical question as to why, if 100% radiation scanning is desirable and doable, DHS wouldn't want to do the scan as soon as possible.

Second, while I'm delighted by DHS' volte face embrace of the notion of 100% radiation scanning as soon as possible, how is it feasible to go from virtually no such scanning today to 80% scanning "by the end of the year." I'm bad at math, but, I think I'm right in figuring that the end of the year is only a little more than three months away. Given DHS' track record, I find it hard to believe that it will make this deadline. And, even if it does make the deadline, I wonder whether the scanning will be as effective as claimed. After all, Chertoff cited the deployment of thousands of personal radiation detectors and radiation portal monitors as the backbone of the scanning effort, and as I pointed out in my book, Open Target, neither of those devices can distinguish between deadly radiation and harmless radiation. Only radiation isotope identifier devices can do that, and Chertoff didn't mention anything about deploying more of them.

Finally, we're going to go, it is claimed, from nothing to 80% in three months, but we'll increase scanning by 18% in a little more than a year. Again, even the math-challenged can see that it doesn't quite add up.

In short, color me "skeptical."