The federal research agency in charge of countering emerging terrorist threats such as liquid explosives is so hobbled by poor leadership, weak financial management and inadequate technology that Congress is on the verge of cutting its budget in half.
The Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology Directorate has struggled with turnover, reorganizations and raids on its budget since it was established in 2003, according to independent scientists, department officials and senior members of Congress.
At the same time, the Bush administration's overriding focus on nuclear and biological threats has delayed research on weapons aimed at aviation, a controversial choice that was questioned anew after a plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners from London was made public Aug. 10.
Few experts believe that accelerated research alone would have been certain to stop a bomb plot involving liquid or gel explosives. Screening for such weapons poses both operational and technological challenges, experts said. But more research on approaches to countering emerging threats from conventional explosives improves the odds of detecting each attack, experts agree, and the years lost when work on new technology is not occurring cannot be recaptured, they said.
"There was a period that actually very little was getting done . . . even though this was something that everyone thought would be heavily funded," said Fred Roder, manager of the explosives countermeasures portfolio at Homeland Security from 2003 to 2006. Lost in the scramble was research to secure aviation cargo and to prevent car and truck bombs, he said.
Disputes over money delayed by two years the testing of walk-through "puffer" machines designed to detect explosive residue at checkpoints, said Tony Fainberg, a private consultant who oversaw explosives and radiation detection at DHS in 2003. Ninety of the devices were finally installed at U.S. airports over the past year.
DHS also delayed consideration of a proposal to deploy breadbox-size chemical trace explosive detectors at overseas airports, Fainberg said, even though about 8,000 are now in the United States.
Despite spending billions of dollars to defend against everything from dirty bombs to anthrax, the administration has not delivered a coherent long-term strategy to underpin its rhetoric, said Albert H. Teich, director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Budgets have fluctuated, and personnel has turned over at a rapid rate, according to many who have worked with the department. Nearly all Homeland Security Department research activities will be cut for the first time next year, Teich said.
"The fundamental question that has not been answered adequately is: Where does science and technology fit into this country's homeland security strategy?" said Michael A. Levi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Science and Technology Directorate was formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to set national priorities and end the fragmentation across the government of research into weapons of mass destruction. Its mission includes deploying state-of-the-art detection systems and developing new kinds of response gear, as well as assessing emerging threats.
But with DHS's well-documented start-up problems, the S&T Directorate has been thinly staffed and deprived of money. Its reorganization was put on the back burner by Secretary Michael Chertoff, who took over in March 2005. Meanwhile, its management problems sapped the confidence of administration officials and congressional funders, analysts said.
The resulting turmoil has swept up its leaders. Navy Rear Adm. Jay M. Cohen, its fourth permanent or acting head since 2003, came onto the job this month, after the London plot became public.
In February, the Bush administration announced it would carve $315 million from the agency's $1.3 billion budget to create a new radiological and nuclear detection program. The agency's previous director, Charles E. McQueary, decided he had accomplished all he could and resigned.