WASHINGTON – While the British terror suspects were hatching their plot, the Bush administration was quietly seeking permission to divert $6 million that was supposed to be spent this year developing new homeland explosives detection technology.
Congressional leaders rejected the idea, the latest in a series of steps by the Homeland Security Department that has left lawmakers and some of the department's own experts questioning the commitment to create better anti-terror technologies.
Homeland Security's research arm, called 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.
Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., who joined Republicans to block the administration's recent diversion of explosives detection money, said research and development is 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 Adm. 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, the 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.
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 was to involve liquid explosives.
Hawley said Homeland Security now is 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 U.S. officials at a conference in January, the Japanese Embassy in Washington said.
Homeland Security is spending a total of $732 million this year on various explosives deterrents and has tested several commercial liquid explosive detectors over the past few years but hasn't been satisfied enough with the results to deploy them.
Hawley said current liquid detectors that can scan only individual containers aren't suitable for wide deployment because they would bring security check lines to a crawl.
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 U.S.-destined flights.
A 2002 Homeland 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 his attack in December 2001.
A 2005 report to Congress similarly urged that the trace detectors be used more aggressively, and strongly warned the continuing failure to distribute such detectors to foreign airports "may be an invitation to terrorist 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 retired recently. "There was no resistance from any country that I was aware of, and yet we didn't deploy it."
Fainberg said research efforts were often frustrated inside Homeland Security by "bureaucratic games," a lack of strategic goals and months-long delays in distributing money Congress had already approved.
"There has not been a focused and coherent strategic plan for defining what we need ... and then matching the research and development plans to that overall strategy," he said.
Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, a senior Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, said he urged the administration three years ago to buy electron scanners, like the ones used at London's airport to detect plastics that might be hidden beneath passenger clothes.
"It's been an ongoing frustration about their resistance to purchase off-the-shelf, state-of-the-art equipment that can meet these threats," he said.
The administration's most recent budget request also mystified lawmakers. It asked to take $6 million from Homeland S&T's 2006 budget that was supposed to be used to develop explosives detection technology and instead divert it to cover a budget shortfall in the Federal Protective Service, which provides security around government buildings.
Sens. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the top two lawmakers for Senate homeland appropriations, rejected the idea shortly after it arrived late last month, Senate leadership officials said.
Their House counterparts, Reps. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., and Sabo, likewise rejected the request in recent days, Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Brost said. Homeland said Friday it won't divert the money.