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.
"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.
"The likelihood of a low-technology threat, like you've seen with these transatlantic flights, has been assessed by many people to be very likely, as compared with the WMD threats, like a smuggled nuclear weapon into a port," said Czerwinski, whose organization has led the push for nuclear detection research but who now worries that high-explosives work has fallen in priority.