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.
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.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Homeland Security||1. 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.|
|Bureau of Customs and Border Protection||2. 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.|
|Bureau of Customs and Border Protection||3. 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.|