The Homeland Security Department's independent investigator has concluded that federal inspectors of oceangoing shipping containers still need to improve their detection equipment and search procedures to prevent terrorists from sneaking weapons of mass destruction into U.S. ports.
In a report to be released Thursday, the department's inspector general acknowledges that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has made security changes and has others planned.
Clark Kent Ervin said he still has recommendations to improve the equipment that detects threatening cargo, such as nuclear material, and make inspection procedures more effective.
Details were not made public in the unclassified report, obtained in advance by The Associated Press.
"Improvements are needed in the inspection process to ensure that weapons of mass destruction or other implements of terror do not gain access to the U.S through oceangoing cargo containers," Ervin wrote.
Texas Rep. Jim Turner, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the government needs to put specialized radiation monitors at all U.S. ports and have enough people to physically inspect cargo containers that set off radiation alarms.
While improvements in cargo inspection have been made since the Sept. 11 attacks, less than 5 percent of containers are inspected.
"We all know that the No. 1 threat faced by the American people is a nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist," Turner said. "It illustrates what a wide gap there is in the rhetoric of protecting the homeland and the reality of what we are actually doing. It is one security gap that has got to be closed."
Turner and Rep. John Dingell requested the report after an ABC News team smuggled 15 pounds of depleted uranium into the United States in 2002 and 2003. ABC cited experts who said that shielded depleted uranium had the same signature as shielded weapons-grade uranium _ a finding that the agency has rejected.
Homeland Security Department spokesman Dennis Murphy cast doubt on the validity of the ABC experiment, saying that depleted uranium is used in everyday items, including elevators and jets. He said it does not carry risks, unless it is heated to a point that microscopic pieces can be inhaled.
The inspector general said senior scientists from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory concluded that the Homeland Security agency now has tools that can detect both depleted uranium and highly enriched uranium that could be used in a weapon, but the ability to sense them is reduced in certain conditions. Those conditions were not publicly disclosed.
Ervin's report makes recommendations to improve the equipment, but they were not disclosed. The report also urges better training and search procedures to be followed by cargo inspectors.
Today, if a container creates an alert, Murphy said experts at the always open National Targeting Center work with inspectors at the ports to determine if there is a problem. He said everyday items, including dirt and bananas, are known to set off alarms.