Righting the Ship
A former submarine commander takes the helm at the Homeland Security Department's troubled science shop.
Rear Adm. Jay M. Cohen, retired, was commander of a U.S. submarine at the height of the Cold War. With a smile, he explains that besides overseeing everything on board, his job was basically to make sure they didn't hit rocks. "It's called leadership and management," he says.
His experience makes Cohen, sworn in last fall as the new undersecretary in charge of the Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology Directorate, a logical pick to steer an organization that congressional appropriators called a "rudderless ship." Last year's appropriations season was the nadir of congressional confidence in DHS' science shop, created to coordinate security-related research and development in the public and private sectors. The reports accompanying the Senate and House spending bills vent long pent-up frustrations with the directorate. It wasn't properly managing government- wide research and development and wasn't even capably managing itself, according to the Senate report. As a reprimand, appropriators snatched back $125 million in unspent 2006 funds and cut the agency's budget by 22 percent.
Cohen was sworn in as the directorate's new undersecretary on Aug. 10, the day news stories about an alleged terrorist plot to bomb transatlantic flights with liquid explosives broke and made DHS appear embarrassingly off guard. The chief of naval research from 2000 until early 2006, Cohen has a gregarious but commanding presence. He speaks with supreme confidence, rarely pausing or searching for an answer and sometimes repeating portions of previous speeches and interviews nearly verbatim.
He immediately created rapid response teams to examine the liquid explosive problem. On Aug. 11, he held a teleconference with the directors of the Energy Department's national laboratories to update them on the specific technology used in the liquid explosives. Since then, Cohen has begun implementing a series of changes, which, he says, will solve other directorate problems and put the ship back on the right course.
One Long ExperimentScientific research means testing different models for as long as it takes to find a solution. In that sense, it is appropriate that the history of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate seems like one long experiment. When the 2002 Homeland Security Act created DHS to unify homeland security agencies across government, it also established the Science and Technology Directorate to coordinate security research and development already being performed across the country, inside and outside government. But the directorate's offices on Vermont Avenue in downtown Washington have no beakers or laboratories, only cubicles and offices for most of its 381 full-time employees. Though many are scientists and engineers well versed in the rigors of bench science, they are there to manage.
Colleges and universities, private sector firms, other government departments and agencies, and the federally funded national laboratories all do research and development with potential benefits for homeland security. They investigate innovative ways of detecting illicit substances inside cargo containers, convert military anti-missile systems for use on civilian jetliners and find new technology to enable firefighters and police to communicate with each other. The idea was that the directorate would harness all this work to produce advances to help solve the security problems that seemed so glaring after 2001. The agency would prevent duplication of effort and spur work in areas where it was needed by issuing competitively awarded contracts paid for with an annual research and development budget of more than $800 million. But the plan has not worked out, as several Government Accountability Office reports and the 2006 and 2007 homeland security appropriation bills attest. To hear critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere tell it, the agency has not even been able to track its own spending adequately.
"It has been very frustrating," says Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. He uses data from National Science Foundation surveys to analyze federal agencies' research and development spending. "Until the latest [NSF] survey [in December 2006], we had no idea how DHS was spending its R&D money."
At the core of congressional ire is the absence of a strategic plan for the massive amounts of dollars flowing through the directorate. The 2007 spending bill not only rescinded $125 million in unspent 2006 funds, it made another $110 million in 2007 appropriations contingent on the production of management progress reports and a five-year investment plan-with detailed justifications and cost estimates. (The directorate is working on one now, officials say.) Without such a list of priorities, observers say it's impossible to evaluate how well the directorate is doing, decide how much appropriators should provide for it or determine whether its spending decisions make sense. For example, the directorate has spent 54 percent of its appropriated funds on research related to weapons of mass destruction-biological, chemical, radiological and nuclear agents-a disproportionate amount, some say.
"My belief is that the department as a whole, in particular headquarters and the Science and Technology Directorate . . . was overly preoccupied with the contingencies of WMD and terrorism to the point where anything that didn't have to do with those things was a stepchild," says Amy Donahue, associate professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut who has advised DHS and the Science and Technology Directorate. "You can go after particularistic problems like bioterrorism . . . and try to build sensor systems to contend with that, and those are expensive. . . . Alternatively, you could think about improving the basic capacity to respond to any big disaster, whatever the cause of it might be."
The directorate's struggles have in a sense perpetuated themselves. Citing management problems, Senate appropriators last year sought to remove the Transportation Security Laboratory from the directorate's control and transfer it back to the Transportation Security Administration. (The provision was removed in conference.) And in 2005, the administration moved the entire radiological and nuclear weapons portfolio out of the Science and Technology Directorate and into a new, separate DHS agency called the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office.
Observers say the moves could fragment homeland security research and development, making it more difficult for the directorate to unify and coordinate research. "I fear losing the synergy that [is] the hallmark of an integrated approach to the research and development program," Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote in a 2005 letter to DHS, criticizing the creation of the nuclear detection office.
But most of all, critics say, management struggles render the directorate little more than a hobby shop investing in research projects that might be interesting, but aren't necessarily what DHS agencies, local governments and first responders need. Cohen concedes that users should be included in determining the directorate's priorities and has implemented integrated product teams to ensure the agency is funding only work that meets requirements generated by homeland security agencies or first responders. "There may have been [past efforts to coordinate with users], but they didn't engage the customer directly," says Cohen.
'Painful Churn'The directorate's trial-and-error period was not all error. Parney Albright, the former DHS assistant secretary for science and technology, who left the department in the summer of 2005, says the idea that the directorate lacked a strategic plan-at least while he was there-is "nonsense." He and others in the department frequently briefed Capitol Hill and held numerous conferences to inform private sector groups about the directorate's plans, he says. Albright, now a managing director at the Washington consulting firm Civitas Group, also points out that developing far-off technologies is enormously difficult and takes time, and a mandate from Congress or a request for proposals from DHS does not change that immutable fact. "We used to joke about this. If the government issued an RFP to construct the Starship Enterprise, several contractors would bid on it, providing in great detail cost and schedule," he says. "Just because you have a problem, doesn't mean you can solve it."
Albright and others say the directorate has produced plenty of tangible results. It has, for example: deployed the second generation of BioWatch, a system that monitors the air for pathogens in 30 cities nationwide; broken ground on the new 160,000-square-foot National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center at Fort Detrick, Md.; developed prototypes of an ACSD, or advanced container security device, an in-container sensor that can detect any intrusion; launched pilot versions of air cargo and rail security explosive detection programs. "I'd challenge anybody to look at the [directorate's] budget, at least through 2006, and show one example of something that was a dilatory exercise," says Albright.
What's more, the directorate has had to deal with high staff turnover, organizational changes and three acting or permanent undersecretaries in less than four years. Even the harshest critics say the directorate's task is an enormously difficult one given the circumstances. "This kind of painful churn, as much as it's very easy to be critical-and I'm very often critical of it-it's a little bit unfair," says DHS adviser Donahue, who is quick to temper her criticisms by noting the department's young age. "We sort of have to experiment, to get it right." AAAS' Koizumi agrees. "It may be that for most of the DHS research and development investment, it may be too soon to think about results," he says. "It's not too early to think about process and priorities."
Far-Off Ideas That's where Cohen comes in. Soon after coming aboard and establishing the liquid explosive rapid response teams, he reorganized the directorate based largely on a model he developed at the Office of Naval Research. "When he first came over, he kind of walked everyone through a relatively long speech [saying]: He has his way of doing it, he has his team members and that's how he's going to get it done," says Scott M. Brenner, chief of external communications under Cohen's predecessor, acting undersecretary Jeffrey Runge, and now vice president of O'Neill and Associates' federal relations practice in Washington.
With the consent of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Congress, Cohen reorganized all the research into six portfolios: explosives; chemical and biological weapons; command, control and interoperability; borders and mari-time; human factors; infrastructure and geophysical. Previously, Cohen says, the directorate was set up largely along the lines of individual projects, which, he says, was the result of the mandates that came with standing up the department. He politely rejects that model. "The problem I have with aligning or organizing to projects is, as the projects evolve or change, you find yourself frequently reorganizing," he says. He emphasizes his point with loud, slowly enunciated words in the way a father might lecture a truculent child. "I just didn't think that was the right organizational construct for an enduring science and technology, management and investment organization."
The reorganized portfolios, he says, make it easier for technology firms to know who to contact, and, more important, they connect the agency's research more closely with its customers: DHS agencies and first responders. At the top of the agency, Cohen named three new directors to manage investments with different levels of risk. Bob Hooks, director of transition, manages work likely to come to fruition within three years. He works with half of the agency's budget and with 11 integrated product teams, each led by a representative from the Coast Guard, TSA and other DHS agencies, to ensure the directorate's work is based on its customers' requirements. Roger McGinnis, the director of innovation, works with 10 percent of the agency's budget to spur research on high-risk, high-payoff technology in the two-to-five year range. When it works, this technology leaps far ahead of current systems, a 100-megapixel sensor versus a five-megapixel sensor, for example.
Starnes Walker, director of research, oversees the abstract, pie-in-the-sky investigations that years later can lead to breakthrough discoveries with unexpected applications, such as the Global Positioning System or stealth technology. Cohen has devoted 20 percent of his budget to such work, a welcome change to many critics who said the directorate previously was doing too few far-off investigations. According to Koizumi's analysis, basic research represented about 15 percent of the directorate's budget before 2007. First responders "don't have innate research capability," says Donahue. "It's really beholden on the federal government to do the basic research, to take that mission on, if they really want to advance the state of capability."
Cohen already has a list of 15 far-off ideas he's interested in. He plans to invest in research into technology that could steer hurricanes. Project Chloe would create a high-altitude platform to protect civilian jets from shoulder-fired missiles. A system called SAFECON would scan all shipping containers for nuclear, radiological, biological, chemical and explosive weapons in 30 seconds. "We're actually going to do this in a controlled manner," Cohen says with confidence. "And people have already told me I'm crazy."
Indeed, his optimism has raised eyebrows. In November, Cohen announced he had a solution to the interoperability problem that has dogged first responders for decades: a universal digital communications backbone that would link incompatible systems. For some, this kind of proclamation crosses the threshold between optimism and credulousness, suggesting those who have long studied these problems have missed something right in front of them.
Similarly, the directorate issued a solicitation last September for innovations in homemade explosive detection, but after receiving responses, put the innovative parts of the program on hold, continuing only with the evaluations of commercially available technology. Albright says they found what he and others already knew: There are no good solutions to this problem. "Explosive detection is an area that has been looked at hard for 30 years," he says. "Every technology that you can imagine has been looked at already. Explosive detection is just very, very hard."
Still, Albright and most other observers seem prepared to give Cohen a chance. After a Feb. 14 House Homeland Security Committee hearing with Cohen, Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said the directorate seems to have a steady hand at the helm. "I happened to talk to all the members who attended the hearing," Thompson gushed at a hearing the next day, "and they felt very, very good about where he is moving his shop."
Cohen may not be a scientist-"at best, people have called me a shade tree engineer," he jokes-but he seems to understand science. "I tell people the Department of Homeland Security is an incredible experiment in nuclear fusion, in bringing 22 disparate agencies together," he says. "It's a work still in progress."