Plan to improve nuclear-detection technology mired in red tape

Back in 1987, as President Reagan's undersecretary of Defense for policy, Fred Ikle worked on what he felt was a groundbreaking Defense Science Board report that highlighted the need to improve nuclear-detection technology. Nothing happened.

In 2004, he worked on another Defense Science Board report that highlighted the need to improve nuclear-detection technology. This time, he wasn't about to let the report go unnoticed.

Ikle knew that the Center for the Study of the Presidency, a small Washington think tank, had been organizing roundtables aimed at offering practical advice to the Department of Homeland Security. The center, founded by former NATO Ambassador David Abshire, used its pull to assemble a heavyweight group of scientists who had defense backgrounds, including Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin.

In the spring of 2004, the roundtable convened and concluded that politics, more than technology, was hindering the development of nuclear-detection capabilities. The group thought that if someone could break through the bureaucracy and create a type of "mini-Manhattan Project," the government could perhaps produce a real technological breakthrough in five to 10 years. The goal would be to create nuclear-detection equipment that was small enough and cheap enough to deploy around the world -- from Tora Bora to the Port of Los Angeles -- and sensitive enough to detect highly enriched uranium.

Ikle and Richard Wagner, who authored the 2004 Defense Science Board study, pressed their Defense Department contacts. James Loy, the deputy secretary at Homeland Security, pressed within his department. Eventually, the issue rose to the level of a White House "Deputies Committee" meeting.

"In Washington, people mostly have meetings," Ikle grumbles, noting that while the Manhattan Project produced the A-bomb in 28 months, "it takes Washington 28 months to produce an organizational chart."

It was really more like six months before the deputies settled on a model, which they called the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, and got the go-ahead from the White House. Loy says the purpose of the office was to balance the premise that nuclear-detection capabilities were inherently limited by physics and couldn't get much better, against the more optimistic notion of Ikle and his allies that scientists weren't pushing the limits of physics hard enough. So, the office was charged with both maximizing the current capabilities and establishing a "mini-Manhattan Project."

Vayl Oxford got a call in November 2004 asking him to lead the office's start-up. At the time, he was director of counterproliferation at the National Security Council. He accepted and immediately began drawing up his plans. The office would coordinate detection efforts across the federal government; establish common operational plans for officials at all levels of government who handle detection; and develop a global "architecture" of nuclear detection.

But even as Oxford was planning, a skeptical Congress began yanking the rug out from under him. Arguing that DHS had no clear plan for how to spend the money, the House Appropriations Committee slashed the office's funding from $227 million to $127 million. "We're not going to resign ourselves to that number," says Oxford, noting that budget figures are rarely final this early in the year.

Some of the participants in the original think-tank group behind the idea worry that the research-and-development program won't have the stature of a Manhattan Project if it is buried in the bowels of the Homeland Security Department. Ikle is concerned that the R&D program, if it gets funded at all, might parcel out small amounts of money to universities in various congressional districts, and not amount to much in the end. Many in the original roundtable group are already trying to persuade the White House to establish a mega-nuclear-detection research project outside of the new office. At the White House, though, Kenneth Rapuano, deputy assistant to the president for homeland security, says he sees the office as an ambitious research effort. Ikle's criticism, he says, "is a bit premature."

If the new office eventually produces truly revolutionary detectors, the only place they're sure to be deployed is at the ports of entry along the border. Oxford has the power to cajole, but not to compel, the Energy Department and the FBI to heed his recommendations.

Insiders report that the Defense Department is transferring people and programs to the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and sticking Homeland Security with the bill. Meanwhile, as the office, which plans to eventually house 110 employees, collects agents borrowed from other parts of the government, it runs the risk of filling up with other departments' castoffs.

If all of these problems sound familiar, they should: The creation of the Homeland Security Department happened pretty much this way. Maybe the mini-Manhattan Project will do better.