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The Nose

Some Assembly Required

Jefferson Jackson Steele

Posted 7/27/2005

President George W. Bush graced the Port of Baltimore last Wednesday, choppering into a compound walled in by double-stacked cargo boxes, to check out the newest gadgets protecting us from terrorism. The Nose noted that some 90 uniformed people stood on a bleacher behind Bush, while a dozen or so others patrolled the converted warehouse or skulked atop the cargo boxes outside, armed with short-barreled automatics.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich introduced Bush to the usual members-only crowd of about 325. He thanked the president for $11 million in federal grants for port security and said “just six weeks ago our latest tool was demonstrated—and you just saw a demonstration of it—the Eagle X-ray.”

It is an impressive thing: an inverted U, two traffic lanes wide, that drives over the 40-foot shipping containers, scanning about one per minute. Its maker, Rapiscan of Hawthorne, Calif., says the X-rays can spot contraband through a foot of solid steel.

Bush, in his speech, made apparent reference to the Eagle X-ray. “You look inside the truck. You don’t have to get in it. That’s called ‘technology,’ “ Bush said. The crowd chuckled.

“And it’s working,” Bush concluded.

But the Nose wonders whether it actually is working. It turns out Bush looked at another machine, the Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS), an older technology that demonstrably doesn’t work, according to government audits reported in The New York Times.

The VACIS is made by Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) of San Diego. U.S. Customs officials were “so intent on buying an SAIC product, even though a competitor had introduced a virtually identical version that was less expensive, that they placed the manufacturer’s brand name in the [purchase] requests,” according to a May 8 article in the Times. “The agency has bought more than 100 of the machines at $1 million each. But the machines often cannot identify the contents of ship containers, because many everyday items, including frozen foods, are too dense for the gamma ray technology to penetrate.”

Recognizing the limitations of the VACIS, Customs set out to augment it with the more powerful—and more expensive—Eagle X-ray system. But just how much more expensive is strangely unclear.

At its June 2 unveiling in Baltimore, U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner told the assembled dignitaries and reporters that the Eagle cost $6 million.

But Rapiscan, in press releases and filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, said the price was between $4 million and $5 million.

Back on June 2, while Bonner and then Ehrlich spoke in superlatives about the Eagle and its $6 million price tag, the Nose sidled up to Peter Kant, Rapiscan’s vice president of government affairs, and attempted a fact check.

“I don’t know what the government is paying, but $6 million sounds a bit high,” Kant blurted, claiming a $4.9 million sticker price.

The Nose asked Bonner about the discrepancy, but he could not explain it.

In fact, a series of phone calls to the Department of Homeland Security and Customs has turned up no one who can authoritatively explain the price discrepancy.

Customs spokesman Barry Morrissey made the most recent attempt, on July 21. “Our cost is $6 million,” he insisted, adding that the 22 percent premium Customs paid over factory invoice “could include setup, installation, assembly—it’s so big it comes in pieces.”

Morrissey then speculated that money might have been spent shoring up the piers from which the 90-ton Eagle works. “We make sure whatever it is installed on can support its weight,” he said. Which makes no sense to the Nose, considering the four 15-story cranes already bolted to those piers.

The Nose requested that Morrissey look into it and get back to us with more solid details about how the $1.1 million was actually spent. Morrissey promised to do so, but did not get back to us by deadline.

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