DHS Terror Research Agency Struggling

Science and Technology Directorate faced with challenges in leadership, financial management

"The appearance of disarray" in the rest of the directorate has led to "a lack of confidence" by Congress to really invest in homeland R&D, said Jonah J. Czerwinski, director of homeland security projects at the Center for the Study of the Presidency, a think tank in Washington.

Cohen was not available for comment last week, but aides said one of his first actions was to create a rapid-response task force to deal with liquid explosives.

"I don't know that we've lost any ground at all. I think we're where we need to be," said Susan Hallowell, director of the Transportation Security Laboratory, which conducts research on countering threats. "Hard decisions need to be made if we're going to use . . . devices for additional screening and slow [airport] queue lines."

In a 2007 spending bill awaiting a vote after the August congressional recess, the Republican-led House would cut spending by the Science and Technology Directorate from $1.3 billion to $668 million. Congress noted about $250 million in unspent agency funds.

Republican and Democratic senators are offering the agency $712 million, but in a budget report cited the agency's lack of goals, mystifying accounting and unspent money, and called it a "rudderless ship."

The rebuke by Congress came after the Bush administration spent three years consolidating nearly all DHS research in the Science and Technology Directorate. But frustrated lawmakers are now only too eager to help the White House dismember the agency, agreeing with the need to spin off radiation detection work.

The Senate would go further, returning explosives countermeasures research to the Transportation Security Administration after a five-year odyssey that saw the Transportation Security Laboratory moved from the Federal Aviation Administration to the TSA to the Science and Technology Directorate.

The laboratory's leading-edge work to protect commercial airliners and other transportation from bombers has been diluted by DHS's reorganization and focus on weapons of mass destruction, analysts said.

"DHS has focused largely on weapons of mass destruction detection and countermeasures. As far as I know, they haven't devoted much attention to airport screening technologies that might detect the kind of explosives that the alleged terrorists in the U.K. were planning to use -- a weakness that was very nearly exploited," Teich said.

According to the AAAS, department spending on nuclear and radiological countermeasures research has grown from $75 million in 2003 to $209 million this year, with more than $234 million proposed next year. Biological countermeasures received about $370 million in those two years, with about $330 million proposed next year.

But money for explosives work has ridden a roller coaster, falling from $110 million to $44 million, with $82 million proposed next year. Despite the post-Sept. 11 emphasis on research and detection, the department has failed for two years to tell the Senate what it is doing with the money.

Almost half of the $4 billion the government spends on research related to homeland security goes to the Department of Health and Human Services, Teich said, to combat bioterrorism, "not because it's the most serious or immediate threat but because" the government's life sciences infrastructure is so strong. More than half of Science and Technology's pending budget of about $700 million would go toward biological and chemical weapons detection.

In 2003, DHS shifted $61 million of its $110 million explosives countermeasures budget to meet operational needs, such as paying passenger screening personnel. That delayed the development of a device to detect liquid explosives.

This year, DHS tried but failed to take $6 million from explosives research to help fill a $42 million budget gap for the Federal Protective Service, which guards government buildings.

Explosives researchers are demoralized, and vendors are confused by the lack of emphasis on conventional methods of attack, Fainberg said. The transportation security lab "urgently needs some stability organizationally and financially to operate," he said.

With the reemergence of Sept. 11-type threats such as the foiled plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners, experts said this is not the time for less research.