Agencies struggle to coordinate nuclear-detection architecture
By PATRICIA KIME, Special Correspondent
The Threat Is Real
During testimony July 7 before
the Senate Commerce, Science and
Transportation subcommittee on
oceans, atmosphere, fisheries and
Coast Guard, Allen called the potential threat from small vessels this
nation’s “greatest vulnerability.”
The issue came to the forefront in
January, when the GAO took the
Department of Homeland Security’s
Domestic Nuclear Detection Office
(DNDO) to task over a pilot program
designed to help local maritime agencies contribute to the country’s
The GAO charged that the DNDO — one year into
a three-year pilot program in Puget Sound, Wash., and
San Diego — has little capability to sustain or expand
the effort nationwide if successful. The GAO revealed
that the DNDO borrowed detection equipment from
the Coast Guard in order to get the program started.
“DNDO has made little progress in developing criteria for assessing the success of the pilot … and resolving
some of the challenges it faces in the pilot program,
such as technological limitations of the detection equipment and sustaining current detection efforts,” according to the GAO report “Nuclear Detection: Domestic
Nuclear Detection Office Should Improve Planning to
Better Address Gaps and Vulnerabilities.”
The challenges faced by the DNDO to deal with the
small boat threat are not inconsequential. The office was
created in 2005 to coordinate the efforts of 74 federal
agencies or programs identified as part of the nation’s
nuclear-detection architecture. It is charged with integrating the bureaucracy’s detection activities, equipment
Partners range from offices at the Department of
Energy, including the national laboratories; the Departments of State and Defense; Customs and Border
Protection (CBP) agents and the Coast Guard. Many state
The threat of small vessels being used as terrorist platforms is a
concern among U.S. agencies, officials and security experts.
■ Between 1993 and 2006, there were 1,080 confirmed cases
of illicit trafficking of nuclear and radiological materials worldwide.
■ At U.S. ports, Customs and Border Protection oversees radiation monitoring for cargo arriving in ships over 300 gross tons.
■ Along the coastline, the Coast Guard is responsible for ensuring the safety of the nation’s registered small vessels.
The commander in chief is scheduled to speak at San Francisco’s AT&T Park adjacent to San Francisco Bay, but the locale causes angst for
the Secret Service and law enforcement agencies overseeing security for the event: Should small craft be
allowed to sail within earshot and, if so, can these vessels be screened for potentially hazardous materials
without impeding traffic or delaying the speech?
With this scenario and the 2010 Olympics in mind,
federal, state and local agencies held an exercise April
29-30 in Alameda, Calif., to address what’s been called
a critical gap in the nation’s nuclear threat-detection
capability — the capacity to locate components of a
nuclear weapon on vessels smaller than 300 gross tons,
including private pleasure boats.
The potential use of one or more of the nation’s 18 million boats and fishing vessels as a terrorist platform has
been identified by the Government Accountability Office
(GAO), Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen and
security experts as a very real threat.
James Carafano, a senior staffer at the Heritage
Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington,
said the attacks in 2000 on USS Cole in the Yemeni port
of Aden and in 2008 in Mumbai, India, underscore
SEAPOWER / AUGUST 2009