As officials often put it, the office is in charge of developing a nuclear detection "architecture," -- essentially a strategy for global deployment of nuclear detectors -- but responsibility for implementing that plan sprawls across a network of government agencies, including the FBI and the Defense, Energy, Justice and State departments.
However, some lawmakers have questioned the office's ability to coordinate the deployment of that plan. The Senate Appropriations Committee in June recommended withholding $80 million in "research, development and operations" from fiscal 2007 Homeland Security Department funding until an agreement is reached between all the agencies involved in nuclear detection regarding their responsibilities. The detection office itself is part of the Homeland Security Department.
The committee expressed concern that "DNDO lacks the ability to ensure these agencies will follow through with their role in this architecture." In addition, the committee recommended cutting more than $93 million from the president's $535 million budget request for the office.
That includes all fiscal 2007 funding -- more than $65 million -- for a grant program designed to put the nation's research universities to work on the problems of nuclear detection. The committee said the program too closely mirrored an existing initiative within Homeland Security's Science and Technology Office.
Lawmakers also cut $18 million from a program to enhance detection of shielded plutonium or uranium, due to earlier delays in the program's inception.
The committee also halved the office's $17 million nuclear forensic budget, noting that the FBI and the detection office jointly manage the nuclear attribution program. If the FBI shares management of the program, it should also contribute funding, the committee report recommends.
Director Vayl Oxford last week said cuts to his office's research budget could hamper efforts to develop next-generation nuclear detectors.
The academic research program cut by the Senate is "the future for this country for this area," Oxford said during a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing. The cuts "will hurt our ability to get the universities and colleges engaged in this topic, to bring the best and brightest to the forefront."
"We need to work with the Senate in the conference process to see if we can restore that," Oxford said.
A House version of the same appropriations bill reduces funding by $35 million to $500 million. The House Appropriations Committee removed funding for the office's "surge" program. The program was designed to provide federal, state and local law enforcement with rapidly deployable equipment for nuclear detection during periods of heightened threat conditions.
The House also the trimmed research funding request from $100 million to $85 million. While the White House request would have represented a 70-percent increase over fiscal 2006 DNDO funding levels, the House bill still bumps up the office's budget by nearly 60 percent.
Unlike the Senate committee, which expressed concerns about the detection office's ability to get related agencies to implement its architecture, the House committee included a dose of praise in its appropriation report.
"The committee is impressed with the aggressive efforts and focus of this new organization. Though only a year old, DNDO has provided timely and accurate information, worked with Congress to clarify its important mission, and appears well on its way to greatly expanding domestic capability for detection of illicit nuclear materials."
Such an assessment is slightly at odds with a March report from the Government Accountability Office. The report called Homeland Security's review process for providing requested information to Congress "cumbersome," noting that it has resulted in funds being available later than expected.
The delay in funding, in turn, has resulted in a delayed deployment of radiation detectors at U.S. ports of entry.
The report also called Homeland Security's planned schedule to install more than 3,000 radiation detectors by 2009 at a cost of $1.3 billion "highly uncertain."
A New Office
The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office officially began operations on April 15, 2005. However, discussions on the new agency had begun nearly a year earlier in May 2004.
"It was understood that to effectively combat the threat of smuggled nuclear weapons the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security had to be better organized," said Jonah Czerwinski, a senior researcher with the Center for the Study of the Presidency.
There were, in essence, two questions at the core of the issue: Are we at the limits of physics or the limits of technology in detecting the presence of smuggled nuclear material? Also, are the various agencies involved set up in the best way to prevent nuclear smuggling?
"The answer to the second question was a resounding 'no'," Czerwinski said. The Center for the Study of the Presidency acted as a catalyst for the new office, conducting round table discussions and bringing together officials from the executive branch and experts from outside government, Czerwinski said.
Involved in these discussions were then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, staffers for Vice President Dick Cheney's office and personnel from the U.S. national laboratories. Norman Augustine, then chairman of the board for defense contractor Lockheed Martin, led the meetings.
The goal was to create a truly comprehensive solution to detecting smuggled nuclear material, one that extended well beyond Homeland Security. That meant addressing the problem across all phases of "an adversary's activities, including motivation, planning, delivery and exploitation," according to notes from the first meeting.
"The purpose was to elevate this issue so it doesn't become just another element of bureaucracy or another budget line," Czerwinski said. The program meant looking beyond just the challenges of detection and examining how existing programs were working together, he said.
By the end of 2004, Deputy Homeland Security Secretary James Loy was ready to take the idea of this new coordinating agency to the White House, Czerwinski said.
"We started meeting with the vice president," he said. In January 2005, Czerwinski and Loy met with Cheney, his then-national security affairs assistant Lewis Libby and other members of the vice presidential staff. "For about an hour we went over some of the concepts in play."
The agency's first appellation was the National Domestic Nuclear Defense Office, a name that seems to reflect the broad vision sketched out in the 2004 discussions.
It was not always assumed that this new office would fall within the Homeland Security Department. There were discussions of housing it in the Defense Department or within the White House, Czerwinski said.
When the office found a home at Homeland Security, however, the name shifted. "Defense means something, and it means something that DOD owns," Czerwinski said.
Once the office's parent department was known, Czerwinski said, there was a struggle to ensure that it reported directly to the secretary and that it was not lumped together with the department's Science and Technology Office.
The new office was to spearhead the aggressive pursuit and deployment of new detection technology, but also had a broader mission. It was designed to be an interagency "hub," Czerwinski said.
In addition to drafting a "global detection architecture," the office was designed to serve as a "focal point" to coordinate nuclear detection efforts within the executive branch, Oxford said last week.
Detection efforts were receiving little attention before 2005, said former DNDO deputy chief Mike Carter. As notes from the 2004 round-table session describe it, "basic research needed to improve the sensing and detecting capabilities of smuggled radiological and nuclear material remain stovepiped" across the executive branch and the agencies involved.
Before the detection office's inception "research and development capabilities were what I would call way underfunded," Carter said. "Investment in radiation detection had gone to almost nothing."
The various agencies involved were, in part, "warring factions," Carter said. Those were problems Oxford's agency was designed to ameliorate by bringing together an interagency staff.
"It was partly a government social experiment," Carter said.
Before the office was formalized, Homeland Security funding for acquisition of detectors and research and development totaled about $173 million in 2005. The office is operating with a $315 million budget this fiscal year. While it remains to be seen if it will receive the $535 million requested for fiscal 2007, Oxford told the Senate subcommittee, "We are on the right trajectory."
The additional funding has been directed to research activities and the deployment of radiation detectors at the nation's ports.
With support from Congress and the White House, Oxford expects the office budget to crack $1 billion in about five years.
From five or six federal employees about 18 months ago, the office is projected to have more than 100 next year, Carter said.
Governmental and independent critics, however, have questioned just how well the agencies have been brought together, and the proposed Senate funding cuts seem to reflect some of those questions.
The office's mission, has been defined a number of times in a number of different ways, said Michael Levi, a nuclear terrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Lawmakers might be asking, in effect, just what the agency does.
"I suspect that the funding cuts may have been made in part to send the signal that Congress needs more information," Levi said.
"Key parts of Congress appear to have different ideas of what DNDO's mission is, and those sometime differ from how DNDO defines its mission itself. That's problematic," he said.
Referring to the laudatory language in the House appropriations bill, Levi sees a conception of an office with a purely domestic scope, but the language used by Oxford and others speaks to something broader than that.
"DNDO talks about a 'global architecture,' which is a great goal, but that's different from domestic detection," Levi said.
Czerwinski said the Senate's budget figures are disheartening, and the demand for memoranda of agreement between the detection office and the other agencies involved might represent a fundamental misunderstanding of what the office was designed to do.
It was created to be a "focal point" of the interagency community, he said. The office is as much a part of Homeland Security as it is a part of the Defense, Energy or Justice departments, Czerwinski said. All those agencies have staff members working side by side with Oxford, making memoranda of agreement are superfluous.
However, he acknowledged that the conception of the office as a functioning point of interagency cooperation might not match the reality.
"The jury's still out," he said. "Ideally that's the way it's supposed to be, but it's still so young."