Lance Cpl. Nicholas Taylor, a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Defense Specialist with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, trains at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Sept. 14, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Adam Dublinske)

Is DHS Doing Enough to Secure Key Cities from Nuclear Terrorism?

DHS’s Securing the Cities (STC) program seeks to give state and local agencies the ability to detect and deter nuclear terrorism, including dirty bombs. It provides funding for equipment, such as radiation detectors, and training for up to 5 years. Participating cities are required to submit plans and show potential future funding sources for sustaining these programs after DHS funding ends.

The Government Accountability Office found DHS does not fully track program spending and performance, and has not addressed challenges to sustaining these programs.

To reduce the risk of successful deployment of nuclear or radiological weapons in U.S. cities, the program establishes local threat detection and deterrence capabilities. DHS tracks cities’ spending of program funds and some performance data through cities’ quarterly reports but does not collect other data on itemized expenditures and to assess how effectively cities achieved performance metrics and program milestones or how they performed in drills that simulate a threat. For example, DHS does not compare information on expenditures to the purchase plans it approved for cities.

As a result, DHS does not know the dollar amounts cities actually spent on program purchases. Expenditure data GAO requested show that cities spent most funds on detection equipment—that is, $94.5 million of the $144.8 million cities spent through June 30, 2018. By regularly collecting expenditure information from cities and comparing it to approved purchase plans, DHS could better ensure these funds were spent consistent with program goals.

DHS does not have assurance that cities can sustain threat detection and deterrence capabilities gained through the STC program. DHS has not enforced planning requirements for sustaining those capabilities and has taken limited action to help cities do so, although encouraging sustainment is one of its primary program goals. Officials from the five cities in the program told GAO that they anticipate funding challenges that will adversely impact their ability to sustain capabilities over time. For example, several city officials said they cannot rely on other DHS or federal grant programs or local sources of funding once STC funding ends.

Unless DHS analyzes risks related to sustainment, works with cities to address these risks, and enforces sustainment-planning requirements for cities in the program in the future, program participants could see their radiological detection programs and related capabilities deteriorate.

DHS has not (1) fully developed potential changes or documented a plan for making changes to the STC program; (2) identified the basis for such changes; and (3) consistently communicated with cities, raising concerns about how the changes will impact them. DHS officials told GAO that the agency is considering several potential changes to the STC program that would broaden its geographic reach and scope and centralize acquisition of detection equipment, among other things, but it has not fully developed or documented these changes and does not have a strategy or plan for implementing them.

A law enacted in December 2018 requires DHS to develop an implementation plan for the STC program. The law’s requirements would provide DHS an opportunity to identify the basis for potential changes, and assessing such changes would provide more reasonable assurance that they would strengthen the program. Further, most city officials GAO interviewed said that in an August 2018 meeting, DHS provided a high-level overview of potential changes and little detail on how such changes would be implemented or affect city operations. If DHS does not clearly communicate to cities how the program will operate under potential changes, these cities could face difficulties planning for the future and achieving the program’s detection and deterrence objectives.

Read the report at GAO

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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