Jazz will be discussing this with Ed Morrissey on Heading Right Radio.
We've been doing a bit of background research here at MEJ, and a story that started out looking like yet another case of taxpayer dollars being shuffled into the hands of questionable private contractors has taken a few turns which have made the plot thicken. The first issue was this story stuck back on page 4 in the wapo about a $475M no-bid contract being improperly awarded to "a little-known company" in Alaska for the maintenance of x-ray and nuclear radiation monitoring equipment at border checkpoints for the Department of Homeland Security. This tale takes a few turns, so this post will run on a bit, but please bear with me. It gets interesting.
The Department of Homeland Security improperly awarded a half-billion-dollar, no-bid contract in 2003 to a little-known company to maintain thousands of X-ray, radiation and other screening machines at U.S. border checkpoints, incorrectly designating the firm a disadvantaged small business, according to a report by the department's inspector general.
Alaska Native corporations have favored status under federal laws that encourage American Indian participation in federal contracting. Such legislation has been introduced most prominently by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. But the measures have drawn significant scrutiny and questions about whom they benefit.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, citing Stevens's influence on Capitol Hill, a congressional aide familiar with the report said, "I would hope the Congress would take a long, hard look at conditions that allow a company to improperly get a half-billion-dollar no-bid contract."
Remembering that this is the home stomping grounds of Senate Pork King and current GOP corruption investigation poster child Ted Stevens, it didn't take long for some people's ears to perk up. But what caught my attention was the way the story dovetailed in with another headline that did manage to make it to the front page.
Radiation Detectors for Border Are Delayed Again
A $1.2 billion plan by the Department of Homeland Security to buy a new kind of radiation-detection machine for the nation's borders has been put on hold again, a blow to one of the Bush administration's top security goals.
At the same time, federal authorities are investigating whether Homeland Security officials urged an analyst to destroy information about the performance of the machines during testing, according to interviews and a document.
So it turns out that the Alaskan "native" firm was flushing a lot of money from the contract into two of the usual suspects, General Dynamics and L-3 Communications, but certainly not all of it. And now the DHS is looking to shovel over a billion into purchasing more of this equipment. However, there are "questions" about the equipment which are delaying the purchase, primarily in terms of its reliability and performance. A bit of digging turned up this GAO Report dating back to March of 2005 through November of 2006. It deals specifically with some of the shortcomings encountered in the development, deployment and use of radiation detection equipment at our ports.
I could certainly understand the difficulties involved in such screening. I was picturing situations such as nuclear materials being hidden inside of lead lined boxes with gold foil and water filled cavities dampening out any radiation signatures. But according to the linked GAO report, the would be terrorist might not need to be quite that clever.
These portal monitors can detect both gamma and neutron radiation, which is important for detecting the presence of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, respectively.
Nuclear materials are more difficult to detect if lead or other metal is used to shield them. For example, in July 2004, a container that housed a small amount of radioactive material[Footnote 17] passed through radiation detection equipment that DOE had installed at one of the ports it has completed without being detected due to the presence of the large amounts of scrap metal in the same container.
Additionally, environmental conditions specific to ports, such as the existence of high winds and sea spray, can affect the radiation detection equipment's performance and long-term sustainability.
I see. So we should be able to reliably detect nuclear material coming in to our ports unless the terrorists are clever enough to pack it in with some used radiators or there is a stiff breeze and some salt water spraying around at the docks. So where is this equipment coming from and who is in line to pick up a cool billion dollars in taxpayer money for this gear? That one took a bit of burrowing. The wapo articles on the subject talk about contractors doing maintenance and collecting cash, but they don't talk about where the equipment is coming from. At the very bottom of the GAO report, however, tucked into the footnotes, it is finally indicated that the equipment is made by TSA Systems, Ltd.
For a company engaged in such a high profile effort (preventing terrorism at our ports of entry) for the Department of Homeland Security, there is surprisingly little about them in the news. Searching is complicated because, through either a comical coincidence or creepy undertone, they have the exact same initials as the Transportation and Safety Authority to whom they often report. I wasn't even able to come up with a name of a president or CEO for the company so far. It might be interesting to see if they have any ties to various pork kings and queens on the Hill.
We'll keep digging and get back to you if we can find anything else.
UPDATE: The president of TSA Systems Ltd. is Allan Frymire, and it turns out that he is a frequent and generous contributor to the GOP. To the tune of more than six thousand dollars in the 2006 election cycle alone.
I don't know what this web page means, but it appears to be in Russian, has a nuclear warning symbol on it and lists Mr. Frymire's name and contact information for some reason.