Homeland Security science chief defends fiscal 2005 budget

Charles McQueary, head of the Homeland Security Department's science and technology directorate, testified Wednesday about the president's fiscal 2005 budget request.

Testifying before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Science and Research and Development, McQueary defended the administration's budget choices such as directing the most funding in his directorate toward defense against biological attacks rather than areas like cyber security. He used the opportunity to highlight accomplishments of his directorate one year after its inception.

Having highlighted the directorate's work in developing standards for bio-detection equipment, McQueary was asked about whether there would be standards for cyber security one year from now. He said he could not make that prediction, calling it "very complex" and "premature to speculate." Federal agencies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology are working on cyber-security standards, he noted.

Full committee ranking member Jim Turner, D-Texas, questioned the directorate's process for making budget decisions. He said the directorate's budget would be flat if not for a sizeable increase for biodefense and probed whether $18 million for cyber security is too low.

"I'm not certain I'm very comfortable with the process that leads us to conclude that $18 million is sufficient for cyber," Turner said.

McQueary said that the department's directorate on information analysis and infrastructure protection is responsible for cyber security and that the $18 million would be enough for his directorate.

He also said the choice to emphasize biodefense was based on "knowing in [his] heart" that it is the highest and most likely type of attack to occur. He acknowledged, however, that the nine-point process for determining the budget is based largely on "human-to-human" factors.

Subcommittee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said decisions about what security technologies to buy is one of five top areas of concentration for the department this year. "We are safer than we were a year ago, but we are not nearly as safe as we should or will be," he said.

In response to questioning by Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, McQueary said the plan to work most closely with government labs had sparked a "firestorm." The program, which creates "internal" and "external" labs, was intended to ensure that all labs get a piece of the R&D pie, he said, adding, "We thought we were doing something beneficial."

He said he has volunteered to have an independent review team look at the process and said he would look at options for changing it, though not at this time.

Full committee Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., raised concern about the small number of companies that have applied to take advantage of an administration proposal to limit the liability of companies providing homeland security technologies in the even that they malfunction during an attack. "When bad things happen, lawyers are sure to follow," Cox said.

He said one reason for the small turnout might be that "undue burdens" might be placed on companies, creating barriers to entry. McQueary said the final rules are due in March or April.