As the British terror plot was unfolding, the Bush administration quietly tried to take away $6 million that was supposed to be spent this year developing new explosives detection technology.
Congressional leaders rejected the diversion of funds, the latest in a series of Homeland Security Department steps that have left lawmakers and some of the department’s own experts questioning the commitment to create better antiterror technologies.
Homeland Security’s research arm, the Sciences & Technology Directorate, is a “rudderless ship without a clear way to get back on course,” Republican and Democratic senators on the Appropriations Committee declared recently.
“The committee is extremely disappointed with the manner in which S&T is being managed within the Department of Homeland Security,” the panel wrote June 29 in a bipartisan report accompanying the agency’s 2007 budget.
Representative Martin Sabo, Democrat of Minnesota, who joined Republicans to block the administration’s recent diversion of explosives detection money, said research and development are crucial to thwarting future attacks, and there is bipartisan agreement that Homeland Security has fallen short.
“They clearly have been given lots of resources that they haven’t been using,” Sabo said.
Homeland Security said Friday its research arm has just gotten a new leader, former Navy research chief Rear Admiral Jay Cohen, and there is strong optimism for developing new detection technologies in the future.
“I don’t have any criticisms of anyone,” said Kip Hawley, assistant secretary for transportation security. “I have great hope for the future. There is tremendous intensity on this issue among the senior management of this department to make this area a strength.”
Lawmakers and recently retired Homeland Security officials say they are concerned the department’s research and development effort is bogged down by bureaucracy, lack of strategic planning, and failure to use money wisely.
The department failed to spend $200 million in research and development money from past years, forcing lawmakers to rescind the money this summer.
U.S. slow to test new technology
The administration also was slow to start testing a new liquid explosives detector that the Japanese government provided to the United States earlier this year.
The British plot to blow up as many as 10 American airlines on trans-Atlantic flights would have involved liquid explosives.
Hawley said Homeland Security is now going to test the detector in six American airports. “It is very promising technology, and we are extremely interested in it to help us operationally in the next several years,” he said.
Japan has been using the liquid explosive detectors in its Narita International Airport in Tokyo and demonstrated the technology to US officials at a conference in January, the Japanese Embassy in Washington said.
Homeland Security is spending $732 million this year on various explosives deterrents. It has tested several commercial liquid explosive detectors over the past few years but has not deployed them.
Hawley said current liquid detectors that can scan only individual containers aren’t suitable for wide deployment, because they would slow security check lines to a crawl.
‘Immediate deployment’ urged
For more than four years, officials inside Homeland Security also have debated whether to deploy smaller trace explosive detectors — already in most American airports — to foreign airports to help stop any bomb chemicals or devices from making it onto US-destined flights.
A 2002 Homeland Security report recommended “immediate deployment” of the trace units to key European airports, highlighting their low cost, $40,000 per unit, and their detection capabilities. The report said one such unit was able, 25 days later, to detect explosives residue inside the airplane where convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid was foiled in December 2001.
A 2005 report to Congress similarly urged that the trace detectors be used more aggressively and strongly warned that the continuing failure to distribute such detectors to foreign airports “may be an invitation to terrorists to ply their trade, using techniques that they have already used on a number of occasions.”
Tony Fainberg, who formerly oversaw Homeland Security’s explosive and radiation detection research with the national labs, said he strongly urged deployment of the detectors overseas but was rebuffed.
“It is not that expensive,” said Fainberg, who recently retired. “There was no resistance from any country that I was aware of, and yet we didn’t deploy it.”