Split on Nukes
Critics doubt new office can piece together fragmented nuclear detection campaign.
The new office tapped to rein in uncoordinated and disorganized efforts to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists might be too weak and improperly focused to get the job done. With the Defense, Energy and State departments, as well as the FBI and Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection bureau and Coast Guard all involved in nabbing loose nukes, it's never been clear which agency is in charge. The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, established on April 15 within Homeland Security, is a logical contender, but already it's coming under attack as an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy lacking the clout to bring other agencies to heel.
The office, which is slated to receive $105 million this year and $227.3 million in fiscal 2006, was conceived as the "single accountable organization" for developing a global web to trap nuclear materials, and for acquiring effective domestic detection equipment. It will be staffed with 110 full-time federal em-ployees, including representatives from the other departments involved in nuclear defenses, and 90 contractors. Its director will report to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
But Fred Ikle of the Center for Security and International Studies, a Washington public policy think tank, told the House Homeland Security Committee in late April that the new office could turn into little more than another layer of bureaucracy and delay improvements in detection. Ikle reminded legislators that in 1997, the Defense Science Board, an advisory panel to the Pentagon, issued a study calling for concerted efforts to research and develop nuclear detection equipment. "Unfortunately there was no follow-up, and now . . . we are still unprepared," he said. In 2001, a task force of members from the science board published a guide to beefing up detection, Ikle testified. But the agencies involved failed to act.
"The bureaucratic obstructions were appalling," Ikle recalled. "Bureaucrats called for more grand studies, more interagency meetings, and some even argued that better detection instruments were impossible since our technology for radiation sensors had reached the limits of physics."
Ike fears the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office will have limited power to ensure that research runs more smoothly. It is supposed to serve as a clearinghouse for acquisitions of detection devices, for example, but the agencies involved would retain budgetary authority over the purchases. "This approach will at best produce fractured and fragmented research efforts, greatly slowed down by innumerable interagency meetings," he said. A better tactic would be to concentrate research efforts in existing federal research facilities, according to Ikle.
Others question the focus of the new office. Randall Larsen, the founder of Alexandria, Va., consulting firm Homeland Security Associates LLC, says he doesn't see a place for "domestic" in the name. The aim, he argues, should be to identify and secure weapons-grade nuclear materials before they ever reach the hands of terrorists or cross U.S. borders. "Any terrorist organization smart enough to obtain this material is probably smart enough to transport it to an American city without detection," the retired Air Force colonel wrote in testimony for the April hearing.
There is no single agency devoted to coordinating efforts to stop the material at its source, Larsen says. The National Counterproliferation Center suggested as part of intelligence reform legislation enacted in December would help solve these problems, he says, adding that the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office could eventually operate as "a subset" of this center. But it's unclear whether, or how soon, the counterproliferation center will be established. The law gives the president 18 months to decide if such a center is a good idea.
Larsen worries that, in the meantime, no organization really is in charge of preventing a nuclear attack. "If you wanted to have a hearing on what is being done to prevent such an attack, who would you have to call to testify?" he asked in his testimony. "The secretary of Defense, the secretary of Energy, the secretary of Homeland Security, the secretary of State, the attorney general, the director of national intelligence, to name a few. In other words, no one is in charge."
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