Senators are weighing the need to give the Obama administration more funding and budgetary authority in the wake of the attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day.
Funding could be pumped into the Homeland Security Department to buy hundreds of new full-body scanning machines at U.S. airports, senators indicated Wednesday, and into intelligence agencies to buy new technology to sort and search clues of pending terrorist attacks.
Obama administration officials were summoned to the Hill Wednesday to testify before Senate panels on the bombing attempt of Northwest Flight 253 bound for Detroit, and the White House dispatched John Brennan, its senior homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, to brief senators in a closed session later in the day.
"All of this will require raising new revenues," Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said during a hearing of his committee. "That's always a problem in the U.S. Senate. But doing nothing is not an option."
The move would be a boon for consultants and security companies eager to sell their products to the government. Senators did not indicate how much additional funding might be needed, and attempts to inflate security budgets could meet resistance from some appropriators during hard economic times.
After the Brennan briefing, Senate Intelligence Committee Committee ranking member Kit Bond, R-Mo., said he did not believe intelligence failures associated with the Dec. 25 bombing attempt showed a need to give intelligence agencies more funding so much as it revealed a need for them to correct the problems.
But Rockefeller said he believes the Homeland Security Department is underfunded. He said the department needs to launch a "major new effort" to develop and deploy advanced screening machines at U.S. airports.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told his committee that her agency plans to deploy 450 whole-body imaging machines to the airports by the end of 2010.
The machines produce a metallic image of a person that allows screeners to see if there is anything concealed under clothing. Privacy advocates have criticized the machines as too invasive of personal privacy.
Rockefeller said Homeland Security plans to buy 900 whole-body imaging machines by 2014. Each machine now costs about $150,000.
But House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said in an interview last week he does not believe the department needs more funding as a result of the bombing attempt.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., whose panel also held a hearing Wednesday, said in an interview he is evaluating whether the office of the Director of National Intelligence should be given more budget and personnel authority.
The office was created through a 2004 law to overhaul the intelligence community. But a main point of contention at the time was how much power the director should have over the budgets of civilian and military intelligence agencies.
In the end, Congress gave the director complete programming authority over the National Intelligence Program, which is about $50 billion a year.
But in a somewhat convoluted arrangement, lawmakers limited the power of the director to reprogram funds between agencies in any given year. If agencies resist a reprogramming attempt, the director cannot shift more than $150 million or 5 percent of an agency's budget.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., cautioned against rushing to give security agencies more money. Funding decisions should be based on an assessment of what went wrong in failing to detect the bombing plot, he said.
"You have to really consider what happened," Feingold, a member of both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, said after the Brennan briefing. He added he was not ready to draw any conclusions yet.