Combating Nuclear Smuggling:

Risk-Informed Covert Assessments and Oversight of Corrective Actions Could Strengthen Capabilities at the Border

GAO-14-826: Published: Sep 22, 2014. Publicly Released: Oct 14, 2014.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) covert operations provide limited assessment of capabilities to detect and interdict the smuggling of nuclear and radiological materials into the United States. DHS's U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Operational Field Testing Division (OFTD) conducted 144 covert operations at 86 locations from fiscal years 2006 through 2013, selecting its locations from a total of 655 U.S. air, land, and sea port facilities; checkpoints; and certain international locations. These operations allowed OFTD to assess capabilities for detecting and interdicting—or intercepting—nuclear and radiological materials at locations tested. Results showed differences in the rate of success for interdicting smuggled nuclear and radiological materials across facility types. CBP had a $1 million budget for covert operations of various activities—including nuclear and radiological testing—covering fiscal years 2009 through 2013, and DHS policy requires that components with limited resources make risk-informed decisions. However, CBP testing does not inform capabilities across all border locations, and CBP has not conducted a risk assessment that could inform and prioritize the locations, materials, and technologies to be tested through covert operations. Given limited resources, assessing risk to prioritize the most dangerous materials, most vulnerable locations, and most critical equipment for testing through covert operations, DHS could better inform its decisions on how to expend its limited resources effectively, consistent with the department's risk management policies.

OFTD has not issued reports annually as planned on covert operation results and recommendations, limiting CBP oversight for improving capabilities to detect and interdict smuggling at the border. OFTD has issued three reports on the results of its covert operations at U.S. ports of entry since 2007. However, OFTD officials stated that because of resource constraints, reports have not been timely and do not include the results of covert tests conducted at checkpoints. Furthermore, OFTD tracks the status of corrective actions taken to address recommendations in these reports; however, CBP does not track corrective actions identified from their individual covert operations that were not included in these reports. Establishing appropriate time frames for reporting of covert operations results and addressing barriers to meeting these time frames would help enhance CBP's accountability for its covert testing operations. Further, developing a mechanism to track whether ports of entry and checkpoints have implemented corrective actions could help inform management decision making on the need for further investments in equipment or personnel training to protect U.S. borders.

Why GAO Did This Study

Preventing terrorists from smuggling nuclear or radiological materials into the United States is a top national priority. To address this threat, DHS has deployed radiation detection equipment and trained staff to use it. CBP conducts covert operations to test capabilities for detecting and interdicting nuclear and radiological materials at air, land, and sea ports of entry into the United States as well as checkpoints. GAO was asked to review CBP's covert testing operations. This report assesses the extent to which (1) CBP covert operations assess capabilities at air, land, and sea ports and checkpoints to detect and interdict nuclear and radiological material smuggled across the border and (2) CBP reports its covert operations results and provides oversight to ensure that corrective actions are implemented. GAO analyzed documents, such as test summaries, directives, and planning and guidance papers and interviewed DHS, CBP, and Domestic Nuclear Detection Office officials. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in July 2014. Information that DHS deemed sensitive has been redacted.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DHS inform priorities for covert operations by using an assessment of risk, determining time frames for reporting results, addressing barriers for meeting time frames, and developing a mechanism to track corrective actions. DHS concurred with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact David C .Maurer at (202) 512-9627 or maurerd@gao.gov; or David C. Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or trimbled@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: On September 21, 2015, we met with OFTD staff and they informed us that they are taking steps to close the recommendation by developing a threat matrix for the sea ports of entry. OFTD informed us that they worked with the Office of National Intelligence, Strategic Intelligence and Analysis Division, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, among others, to develop this dynamic threat matrix. We observed that the threat matrix includes a list of high risk countries from where potential unauthorized nuclear, radioactive, and fissile material shipments are most likely to be sent from overseas and arrive in the U.S., and cargo that can mask the radioactive signatures. This threat matrix is dynamic and the information will work together to create a list of high risk ports of entry for the purpose of creating a prioritized list for testing purposes. OFTD officials provided us with a Risk Assessment Tool and the Mission Log Database They plan to develop similar matrices for the railways, air cargo, and land border environments and plan to have them completed by September 30, 2016. To fully address this recommendation, DHS needs to conduct a risk assessment to inform the department's priorities for covert operations at all U.S. locations where DHS personnel screen for radiation, including U.S. checkpoints and ports of entry in air, land, and sea environments.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that resources for covert operations provide reasonable assurance that efforts to detect and interdict nuclear and radiological material smuggled across the border are working as intended and appropriately targeting the most critical materials, locations, and detection technologies, the Secretary of Homeland Security should conduct or use a risk assessment to inform the department's priorities-- related to such decisions as test locations, materials, and equipment--for covert operations at U.S. checkpoints and ports of entry in air, land, and sea environments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To address the recommendation that CBP determine time frames for OFTD reporting of covert operation results and status of corrective actions, OFTD designed a standard operating procedure (SOP), which CBP considers to be a unit level directive that must be followed by CBP staff. The SOP requires that OFTD's covert testing team complete a report with any potential recommendations and send it to the tested component within 5-7 business days from returning from a test. That tested component would have 5-7 business days to respond with a plan of action on how they will respond to and implement the recommendations. After their response, the component is required to notify OFTD on the 15th of each month with their progress toward meeting the recommendation. Initially, OFTD issued an informal notice so that these changes were enacted immediately; however, OFTD has provided us with the SOP that has been formally signed by the Assistant Commissioner. The actions taken by CBP meet the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that CBP has the information necessary to provide oversight and accountability for implementing corrective actions to address weaknesses identified by covert operations the Commissioner of CBP should determine time frames for OFTD reporting of covert operation results and status of corrective actions necessary to timely address border security weaknesses and work with OFTD to address any barriers to meeting these time frames.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To address the recommendation that the Commissioner of CBP develop a mechanism to track the corrective actions taken to address all weaknesses identified through covert actions at the points of entry and checkpoints, OI/OFTD developed a Microsoft Access database to track and monitor corrective action plans for post covert tests. The database tracks completed field assessments by categories including the type of test conducted (such as a covert or a joint local assessment) the location, type of material used, fiscal year of the test and the recommendations made. In addition, the database can delineate the tests by sector so that sector staff can see the status of the recommendations and information on tests conducted within their sectors, but cannot see information for other sectors. In addition, the database also tracks the status of the recommendations for all tests. Staff told us that three reviewers verify the information in the database and that the database itself has an audit capability. The database went live on October 1, 2015. It will be used to track corrective actions for covert test conducted in fiscal year 2016 and will not be retroactive to previous fiscal years. GAO staff observed the database at our September 21, 2015 meeting, and OFTD officials provided us with a mission log database document. The actions taken by CBP meet the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that CBP has the information necessary to provide oversight and accountability for implementing corrective actions to address weaknesses identified by covert operations the Commissioner of CBP should develop a mechanism to track the corrective actions taken to address all weaknesses identified through covert operations at the ports of entry and checkpoints.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection

 

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