U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents have failed to verify the licenses for thousands of shipments of dangerous radiological materials—the same materials sought by terrorists to develop dirty bombs—that arrive at U.S. airports across the country from overseas.
This gaping hole in our nation’s border security has gone on for more than 10 years, according to a recent government audit of CBP’s policies and procedures for ensuring only legitimately licensed shipments are allowed to enter the country. In response to the audit, the Department of Homeland Security said it plans to update CBP’s standard operating procedures and develop a better system for identifying and tracking shipments containing radiological materials by the end of August.
Tens of thousands of shipments containing potentially dangerous radiological material enter the United States each year through the nation’s airports. Radiological material is commonly used in thousands of locations for medical, industrial, and research purposes, such as treating cancer, sterilizing food and medical instruments, and detecting flaws in metal welds. The concern, however, is that these same radiological materials could also be used by terrorists to construct a “dirty bomb”—a type of radiological dispersal device that uses conventional explosives to disperse radiological contamination.
Government auditors uncovered serious gaps in the ability of CBP to identify and verify the authenticity of radiological shipments during repeated tests that go back as far as a decade. In March 2006, auditors were able to transport unlicensed radiological material across the U.S. border using fake licenses. Two years later, after CBP allegedly revised its policies many frontline agents were unaware of the procedure changes.
Another round of tests was conducted for nearly two years from 2016 to 2017 and found more disturbing trends. During one such test, auditors obtained a genuine license to possess radiological material by establishing fictitious companies, and later altered that license in order to procure additional quantities of radiological material. Using both the genuine and altered licenses, the security assessment teams secured commitments from radiological material distributors to sell a dangerous quantity of radiological material considered attractive for use in a dirty bomb.
“During the 21-month period we reviewed, CBP personnel at airports across the country did not verify the legitimacy of a significant number of shipments CBP considered as containing potentially dangerous radiological material,” the government audit states. “After we brought this issue to CBP’s attention, it issued additional guidance. However, this guidance was not clear and caused confusion at the two airports we visited where actions continued to be taken that were not consistent with CBP policy.”
Not only were CBP officers not making the required calls to the Teleforensic Center to verify the materials and shipments, but some officers said they relied on license verification conducted by private express carriers overseas. The only problem is that private carriers do not conduct any such verifications.
The agency has also relied on a generic customs IT system to attempt to track dangerous radiological materials.
“To implement its procedures, the agency chose to use an existing data system designed to process all types of imports into the United States,” the audit states. “This system uses general customs information to identify the contents of shipments. Consequently, of the 44,152 shipments that could contain licensable radiological material, the system alerted CBP officials that they were required to verify relatively few licenses.”
Government auditors also recommended that the tracking system be able to monitor CBP officers’ adherence to the screening policies.
“Such a system could also conduct checks to ensure CBP officials are following agency policy. The challenge to creating such a system is that CBP houses the data necessary to create it in separate systems that do not communicate with each other, and these systems are currently run by different offices with differing missions within CBP,” the audit report states. “Federal standards for internal control state that management should establish and operate monitoring activities to monitor the internal control system and evaluate the results. Until CBP develops a monitoring system to help ensure that CBP officials comply with the license verification policy, the agency will not have reasonable assurance that it can identify activities that are inconsistent with its policy and take corrective action as necessary.”