Border Security:

Investigators Transported Radioactive Sources Across Our Nation's Borders at Two Locations

GAO-06-583T: Published: Mar 28, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 28, 2006.

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Gregory D. Kutz
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Office of Public Affairs
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To address the threat of dirty bombs and other nuclear material, the federal government has programs in place that regulate the transportation of radioactive sources and to prevent illegal transport of radioactive sources across our nation's borders. The Department of Homeland Security through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses radiation detection equipment at ports of entry to prevent such illicit entry of radioactive sources. The goal of CBP's inspection program is to "...thwart the operations of terrorist organizations by detecting, disrupting, and preventing the cross-border travel of terrorists, terrorist funding, and terrorist implements, including Weapons of Mass Destruction and their precursors." Deploying radiation detection equipment is part of CBP's strategy for thwarting radiological terrorism and CBP is using a range of such equipment to meet its goal of screening all cargo, vehicles, and individuals coming into the United States. Most travelers enter the United States through the nation's 154 land border ports of entry. CBP inspectors at ports of entry are responsible for the primary inspection of travelers to determine their admissibility into the United States and to enforce laws related to preventing the entry of contraband, such as drugs and weapons of mass destruction. Our investigation was conducted at Congressional request as a result of widespread congressional and public interest in the security of our nation's borders, given today's unprecedented terrorism threat environment. Our investigation was conducted under the premise that given today's security environment, our nation's borders must be protected from the smuggling of radioactive sources by terrorists.

For the purposes of this undercover investigation, we purchased a small amount of radioactive sources and one container used to store and transport the material from a commercial source over the telephone. One of our investigators, posing as an employee of a fictitious company located in Washington, D.C., stated that the purpose of his purchase was to use the radioactive sources to calibrate personal radiation detection pagers. The purchase was not challenged because suppliers are not required to determine whether a buyer has a legitimate use for the radioactive sources, nor are suppliers required to ask the buyer to produce an NRC document when making purchases in small quantities. The radiation portal monitors properly signaled the presence of radioactive material when our two teams of investigators conducted simultaneous border crossings. Our investigators' vehicles were inspected in accordance with most of the CBP policy at both the northern and southern borders. However, our investigators were able to enter the United States with enough radioactive sources to make two dirty bombs using counterfeit documents. Specifically, they were able to successfully represent themselves as employees of a fictitious company and present a counterfeit bill of lading and a counterfeit NRC document during the secondary inspections at both locations. The CBP inspectors never questioned the authenticity of the investigators' counterfeit bill of lading or the counterfeit NRC document authorizing them to receive, acquire, possess, and transfer radioactive sources.

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