Drug Trafficking: Responsibilities for Developing Narcotics Detection Technologies

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-06-25.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Subcommittee on National Security,
                          International Affairs, and Criminal Justice, Committee on
                          Government Reform and Oversight, House of

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
2:00 p.m., EDT
                          DRUG TRAFFICKING
June 25, 1997

                          Responsibilities for
                          Developing Narcotics
                          Detection Technologies
                          Statement of David E. Cooper, Associate Director,
                          Defense Acquisitions Issues, National Security and
                          International Affairs Division

                       Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee

                       It is a pleasure to be here today to discuss federal agencies’ efforts to
                       develop technologies for detecting narcotics.1 My testimony focuses on the
                       (1) responsibilities of those agencies primarily involved in developing
                       narcotics detection technologies, (2) differences in views between the
                       Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the U.S. Customs
                       Service in developing and deploying these technologies, and
                       (3) opportunities to strengthen federal detection technology development

                       Four agencies—ONDCP, Customs, Department of Defense (DOD), and Office
Summary                of Management Budget (OMB)—are primarily responsible for coordinating
                       or developing narcotics detection technologies. However, ONDCP and
                       Customs have differing views on the need for various detection
                       technologies. For example, ONDCP and Customs have differing views
                       regarding the types of technologies needed along the southwest border.
                       These differing views should be resolved as they work with other agencies
                       in preparing a long-term technology development plan. At the close of our
                       testimony, we would like to suggest areas that should be addressed by the
                       plan. With this overview, let me go back and provide more details in each
                       of those areas.

                       Numerous federal agencies are involved in developing technologies for
Agencies Involved in   detecting narcotics. However, four agencies—ONDCP, Customs, DOD, and
Developing Narcotics   OMB—are primarily responsible for coordinating or developing narcotics

Detection              detection technologies. The congressionally established Counterdrug
                       Technology Assessment Center (CTAC) within ONDCP is responsible, among
Technologies           other things, for coordinating federal counterdrug technology efforts and
                       assessing and recommending narcotics detection technologies. Customs,
                       because of its mission to interdict drugs at U.S. ports of entry, is ultimately
                       responsible for deciding on the types of technologies to be developed and
                       used. As congressionally directed, DOD has been primarily responsible for
                       funding and developing most of the innovative narcotics detection
                       technologies for Customs. OMB is also involved in overseeing Customs’
                       plans for developing and deploying narcotics detection technologies.

                        For a listing of our reports on narcotics detection technologies, see our list of Related GAO Products
                       at the end of this testimony.

                       Page 1                                                       GAO/T-NSIAD-97-192 Drug Trafficking
CTAC Coordinates           Our work shows that federal agencies have spent about $100 million since
Development of Narcotics   1990 to develop technology for detecting narcotics. In coordinating the
Detection Technologies     counterdrug research and development program, CTAC attempts to prevent
                           duplication of effort and to ensure that, whenever possible, those efforts
                           provide capabilities that transcend the needs of any single agency. CTAC
                           relies on its interagency Science and Technology Committee to help
                           prioritize projects supported with CTAC funds. The projects are generally
                           managed by a member agency. In addition, a Contraband Detection
                           Working Group was established under this committee to provide an
                           interagency forum to focus other agencies’ research activities on
                           technology areas that support the contraband detection requirements of
                           law enforcement agencies.

                           In August 1996, the Director, ONDCP, committed himself to revitalizing the
                           Science and Technology Committee and its working groups. Among other
                           things, the Director proposed that the committee act as a steering body,
                           with membership at a level senior enough to make commitments to
                           research and development policy decisions. An ONDCP official informed us
                           that by December 1997, the Committee expects to complete preparation of
                           a 10-year technology development plan with a 5-year budget request.

Customs Relies on DOD to   While Customs has the operational need for detection technologies,
Develop Most Narcotics     Congress tasked DOD to develop most of these technologies because DOD
Detection Technologies     was already developing technologies that could be adapted for narcotics
                           detection. During fiscal years 1992-96, DOD provided a total of $73 million
                           for the development of detection technologies, or an average of about
                           $14.6 million per year. Over the same period, Customs provided
                           $3.1 million for the detection technologies, or an average of about $620,000
                           per year.

                           In 1990, the House Appropriations Committee tasked DOD, in coordination
                           with Customs, to develop a comprehensive plan for developing drug
                           detection technology for use in inspecting cargo containers. The
                           Committee cited cargo containers as a major threat for the import of
                           illegal drugs into the United States and identified specific technologies
                           that should be pursued.

                           In April 1994, DOD began testing a high-energy X-ray system2 capable of
                           penetrating fully loaded containers, at a specially constructed port in

                            The system scans a target with X-ray at an energy level of 8 million electron volts, or about 50 to 70
                           times the energy of a typical airport passenger X-ray.

                           Page 2                                                        GAO/T-NSIAD-97-192 Drug Trafficking
                         Tacoma, Washington. DOD and CTAC viewed the system as a key step
                         toward the development of effective, nonintrusive cargo inspection
                         technologies.3 The tests showed that high-energy X-ray technology could
                         be an effective tool in detecting drugs in a broad range of vehicles and in
                         containers carrying varying types of cargo. DOD expended about
                         $15 million for facility construction and system testing. However, ONDCP,
                         Customs, and DOD agreed in December 1994 to dismantle the site because
                         Customs did not believe that the system was affordable, safe, or
                         operationally suitable for its needs.

                         Based on experiences with the Tacoma high-energy system, Customs and
                         DOD entered into an agreement to ensure that DOD would develop only
                         those technologies that Customs would transition into an operational
                         environment. Based on this understanding, DOD also discontinued work on
                         a Pulsed Fast Neutron Analysis project4 after spending about $15 million
                         because Customs was likewise concerned about its affordability, safety,
                         and operational suitability. According to DOD and Customs officials, future
                         efforts in container inspection will include developing less expensive X-ray
                         systems with a lower energy level, mobile X-ray systems, and more
                         capable hand-held trace detection systems.

OMB Oversees Narcotics   OMB has traditionally reviewed agencies’ budgets to ensure they meet
Detection Technology     presidential priorities and are adequately justified. For fiscal years 1996
Funding Requests         and 1997, OMB questioned Customs’ funding requests for truck X-ray
                         systems to be placed at U.S. ports of entry along the southwest border.
                         These systems use a low-energy X-ray source5 capable of penetrating
                         empty trucks and other conveyances. OMB limited Customs’ use of the
                         funds until certain conditions were met, citing its concern that a
                         low-energy system had limited capabilities for inspecting fully loaded
                         containers. OMB requested a comprehensive border technology plan that
                         would focus effective inspection technologies in the areas of greatest

                          Nonintrusive inspection technology refers to a variety of advanced systems that will permit Customs
                         officials to inspect cargo and conveyances for the presence of narcotics without physically opening or
                         entering the shipment.
                          The Pulsed Fast Neutron Analysis probes targets, using neutrons, for the presence of explosives or
                         narcotics. It uses high-energy neutrons, allowing reliable detection of carbon and oxygen found in
                         narcotics as well as nitrogen found in explosives.
                          Rated at 450 thousand electron volts, about three or four times the energy of a typical passenger X-ray
                         system at an airport.

                         Page 3                                                      GAO/T-NSIAD-97-192 Drug Trafficking
                           In response, Customs prepared a plan favoring the use of fixed-site truck
                           X-ray systems as well as mobile or relocatable systems. Customs stated
                           that the large number of empty trucks crossing the southwest border
                           presents a very high threat because they sometimes carry drugs. As a
                           result, Customs wanted a system to inspect for drugs concealed within the
                           structure of the truck. According to Customs officials, the low-energy
                           X-ray system has been effective in detecting drugs concealed in these
                           empty trucks, is safe, and fits into available space. In addition, acquisition
                           costs are estimated at $3 million, operating expenses are low, and training
                           requirements are minimal compared to the high-energy X-ray system built
                           at Tacoma and the Pulsed Fast Neutron Analysis system.

                           OMB continues to believe that Customs needs a range of technologies for
                           the southwest border. Thus, OMB plans to stay informed on issues dealing
                           with the development of those technologies and has started attending
                           ONDCP meetings on developing narcotics detection technologies so that it
                           can become aware of emerging issues.

                           Federal agencies have not always agreed on the most appropriate
Differences in Views       technologies to detect narcotics at U.S. ports of entry. As noted earlier,
Between ONDCP and          two technologies funded at about $30 million have been developed but not
Customs                    deployed. More recently, differing views between ONDCP and Customs
                           regarding the type of systems needed along the southwest border led to
                           varying directions from congressional committees.

Effect of Differences      Congressional committees have provided differing direction regarding the
Between ONDCP and          development and acquisition of narcotics detection technologies. One
Customs on Congressional   committee, supporting Customs needs, recommended funding for a certain
                           technology, while another committee, responding to ONDCP concerns,
Direction                  directed a moratorium on the purchase of such technology. The
                           differences stem, in part, from recommendations presented in a
                           congressionally mandated study on costs and benefits of specific

                           In September 1994, Congress mandated a study on the cost and benefit
                           tradeoffs in different nonintrusive inspection systems. The study,
                           conducted by ONDCP, was released in September 1996. It concluded that
                           Customs should accelerate the development of an automated system for
                           screening documents to target cargo for further inspection to be deployed
                           at land ports.

                           Page 4                                       GAO/T-NSIAD-97-192 Drug Trafficking
                            The National Defense Appropriations Act for 1997 provided $6 million for
                            DOD’s purchase of low-energy truck X-ray systems to be used by Customs.
                            However, the conference report relating to the 1997 Treasury, Postal
                            Service, and General Appropriations Act directed a moratorium on the
                            purchase of the low-energy systems until Customs reevaluated its plans
                            regarding the acquisition of an automated targeting system, low-energy,
                            and high-energy X-ray systems. The conference report further directed that
                            Customs present Congress with an integrated plan responding to the
                            recommendations in ONDCP’s September 1996 study.

                            Customs’ February 6, 1997, response stated that empty trucks crossing the
                            southwest border are a very high threat. As a result, Customs wanted a
                            system to examine trucks returning empty to the United States. Customs
                            also stated that it would work with DOD and ONDCP to identify and evaluate
                            new inspection technologies that would complement the capabilities of
                            the low-energy system. According to ONDCP, a promising technology
                            currently under development may be as effective. This system, which will
                            be mobile, is expected to cost about $600,000 compared to the estimated
                            $3 million cost of the low-energy system. Customs and DOD are to evaluate
                            this new technology to inspect empty trucks.

                            ONDCP, in coordination with other federal agencies, is preparing a 10-year
Opportunities to            plan for developing detection technologies. Customs is among the
Strengthen Detection        agencies working on this plan and intends to develop a deployment
Technology                  methodology acceptable to ONDCP. In addition, Customs has indicated that
                            it now intends to participate in the interagency development of a
Development                 relocatable explosives detection system that may have counterdrug

Customs Supports a          Development of the current generation of narcotics detection technologies
Methodology for             is nearing completion, but Customs does not have a detailed methodology
Deployment and a Plan for   for selecting the technologies to be acquired. Nonetheless, Custom’s future
                            development efforts are expected to be integrated in ONDCP’s 10-year
Development                 technology development plan.

                            ONDCP’s September 1996 study recommended that Customs adopt a
                            methodology similar to the one ONDCP used for assessing procurement
                            options. The study also pointed out that the variation among the ports
                            require a port-by-port analysis to assess the specific technology needs at
                            each port. Customs has acknowledged that a methodology was needed but

                            Page 5                                     GAO/T-NSIAD-97-192 Drug Trafficking
                              noted that the methodology presented in the study was only one of several
                              possible approaches and did not realistically consider personnel and
                              funding constraints.

                              The 10-year technology development plan is expected to provide a road
                              map for developing nonintrusive inspection technologies and upgrading
                              existing systems. For example, Customs and DOD are expected to set out
                              their plans for developing mobile or relocatable high-energy systems6 for
                              drug interdiction. Both Customs and DOD plan to evaluate the capabilities
                              of the high-energy X-ray system for its ability to detect narcotics concealed
                              in cargo containers. ONDCP plans to review the results of this evaluation.

Explosives Detection          Customs advised an interagency working group on counterterrorism that it
System That May Have a        would participate in the development of a explosives detection system that
Counterdrug Application       may have counterdrug application. In addition, a Customs official is
                              monitoring the system’s development. However, as now being developed,
                              the explosives detection system will not include requirements unique to a
                              narcotics detection application. ONDCP believes that Customs’ involvement
                              with the system will be a worthwhile effort.

                              We endorse the concept of preparing a long-term technology plan for
Conclusion                    developing and deploying narcotics detection technologies. This effort is
                              consistent with ONDCP’s broader efforts to develop a long range plan for
                              achieving the administration’s 10-year National Drug Control Strategy with
                              5-year budget projections. To be effective, ONDCP’s technology plan should
                              address the differing views between ONDCP and Customs on needed

                              At a minimum, the technology plan should address

                          •   a methodology for transitioning technologies from development to
                          •   the status of the automated targeting system’s development as the first line
                              of defense against drug trafficking,
                          •   the best technologies for detecting drugs in empty trucks,
                          •   the capabilities of the high-energy X-ray system for its ability to detect
                              narcotics concealed in fully loaded cargo containers, and

                               High energy systems are defined as having an energy level of at least 2 million electron volts, about 13
                              to 18 times the energy of a typical X-ray system found at an airport.

                              Page 6                                                       GAO/T-NSIAD-97-192 Drug Trafficking
•   the possible use of explosive detection technologies for detecting drugs in
    a seaport environment.

    Mr. Chairman, that concludes my statement. I will be glad to answer any
    questions you or other members of the subcommittee might have.

    Page 7                                      GAO/T-NSIAD-97-192 Drug Trafficking
Related GAO Products

              Terrorism and Drug Trafficking: Responsibilities for Developing
              Explosives and Narcotics Detection Technologies
              (GAO/NSIAD-97-95, Apr. 15, 1997).

              Terrorism and Drug Trafficking: Technologies for Detecting Explosives
              and Narcotics (GAO/NSIAD/RCED-96-252, Sept. 4, 1996).

              Terrorism and Drug Trafficking: Threats and Roles of Explosives and
              Narcotics Detection Technology (GAO/NSIAD/RCED-96-76BR, Mar. 27, 1996).

(707279)      Page 8                                     GAO/T-NSIAD-97-192 Drug Trafficking
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