March 28, 2006

Investigators Enter US with ‘Dirty-bomb’ Material

WASHINGTON -- Four years after the September 11 attacks, investigators were able to easily enter the United States with enough radioactive material to make two so-called dirty bombs, according to a report on a government undercover investigation obtained on Monday.

Two teams made simultaneous entries at the U.S.-Mexican border and the border with Canada carrying radioactive material in their vehicles in December 2005, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in the report on its investigation.

The congressional watchdog agency said the test was designed to examine potential weaknesses related to radiation monitors that have been installed at U.S. border ports of entry, the GAO said.

The monitors worked. But the investigators, posing as employees of a fictitious, still got past the border patrol with fake paperwork authorizing them to transport the material, the report said..

"The CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) inspectors never questioned the authenticity of the investigators' counterfeit bill of lading or the counterfeit NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) authorizing them to receive, acquire, possess and transfer radioactive sources," the GAO said in a letter to Sen. Norm Coleman, chairman of a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee.

"We believe the amount of radioactive sources that we were able to transport into the United States during our operation would be sufficient to produce two dirty bombs, which could be used as weapons of mass disruption," the letter said.

Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, requested the investigation. His subcommittee has scheduled a hearing on Tuesday to examine how the United States is guarding against nuclear and radiological threats.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security was not immediately available for comment.

A dirty-bomb could spew radioactive material across an entire city neighborhood. Preventing a dirty-bomb attack has been a key U.S. national security concern since September 11.

As part of the GAO undercover test, investigators easily bought a small amount of radioactive material from a commercial source by telephone, the agency said.

The purchase was not challenged because suppliers are not required to determine whether buyers have a legitimate reason for acquiring such material and are not required to ask for an NRC authorization document when small quantities are purchased, the GAO said.

"We could have purchased all of the radioactive sources used in our two undercover border crossings by making multiple purchases from different suppliers... using false identities, and had all of the radioactive sources conveniently shipped to our nation's capital," the letter said.