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2005 duPont Award Winners: Nuclear Smuggling Project

Jan 10, 2005  •  Post A Comment

When “PrimeTime Live” aired a report on port security in the United States Sept. 11, 2003, the piece wasn’t that different from a story it had broadcast exactly a year before.

Correspondent Brian Ross and his investigative team tested port security by shipping harmless radioactive uranium from Turkey to New York and aired the results–the uranium entered the United States undetected–on Sept. 11, 2002.

A year later, “We said ‘Let’s do it again,'” Mr. Ross said.

For the second piece, “Primetime Live” wanted to test whether security had indeed improved since the first report, as the U.S. government claimed it had.

In July 2003, Mr. Ross shipped another container of harmless uranium, this time from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Los Angeles, through several security checkpoints, where it again remained undetected. “This shipment went to the Port of Los Angeles and it went through their fancy screener, and again they missed it, and we took it off into a truck and drove it through downtown L.A. to a warehouse in Burbank,” Mr. Ross said.

The driver of the truck recognized Mr. Ross and called his dispatcher. “The good news is the dispatcher had been trained to call the FBI if there was a problem,” Mr. Ross said.

ABC had made no special effort to conceal its project. In fact, the return address on the package was labeled “ABC News in Los Angeles,” Mr. Ross said. “[Homeland Security] realized they’d been had again,” he said.

The U.S. government convened a federal investigation, threatened to summon a grand jury and sent agents to interview the experts ABC consulted with on the piece, including a nuclear energy expert whom the agent waylaid as he was backing out of his driveway on a Saturday morning to go grocery shopping with his wife.

“What stood out for me was the more aggressive approach of the government,” Mr. Ross said. “They wasted a lot of time and resources to investigate what they knew was ABC News doing a test of homeland security.”

Mr. Ross be-lieves the second story demonstrated that ABC News stayed on top of an important issue. “I think it signifies a commitment to go back and check again–that we were serious about it,” he said.