Erasing IEDs

The Office of Bombing Prevention doesn’t cut red and green wires, but it tries to cut red tape for those who do.

The Office of Bombing Prevention doesn't cut red and green wires, but it tries to cut red tape for those who do.

Sometimes when he hears the telephone, Charlie Payne has a scary thought.

"Every time my phone rings at an odd time, I wonder if it's started," he says. Payne, chief of the Office for Bombing Prevention at the Homeland Security Department, is referring to terrorist bombings in the United States. For all the attention on potential dirty bombs, biological agents and chemical weapons, the tactic government leaders most expect terrorists to use in this country is the conventional explosive. "The attack weapon of choice still is the IED," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said at a Sept. 10 hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Payne has personal experience with improvised explosive devices; he served more than 20 years in the Navy, working in the explosive ordnance disposal field, where he eventually was commissioned as chief warrant officer in 1998. Like many EOD officers, Payne is tight-lipped about the details of that work, but he is vocal about what his office is doing now.

The Office for Bombing Prevention is part of the Infrastructure Protection section of DHS' National Protection and Programs Directorate. One of its primary responsibilities is to coordinate all Homeland Security efforts on bombing, which includes 100 different programs, offices or activities.

Coordination is a word used frequently in the homeland security world, and it is largely intangible. But Payne has his own concrete sense of what it entails.

"What it means is first of all having some sort of system to understand what the gaps are [in preparedness and response capabilities], and then having some sort of process . . . to understand the progress you're making toward filling those gaps," he says.

He is speaking not just about capabilities at DHS, but of local bomb squads across the nation. Such units usually are not a city's top priority, Payne says. About half are collateral duty-meaning members do other work during the day, unless an explosives-related incident arises. Payne cites as an example one major city where the bomb squad lacked Internet access when the bombing prevention office first began working with them.

The work Payne's office does in assessing various national, state and local bomb squads is useful not only to compare governments' capabilities to those of terrorists, it also helps bomb squads convince budget authorizers that they need certain improvements. "We can do an interview [with a bomb squad] in one and a half hours and leave them with stuff-PowerPoints, white papers-that will help with their budgets for years," he says.

That is significant because some parts of bomb detection are expensive. Payne says one type of explosive detection robot costs about $250,000 apiece.

"If you go to a municipality and they don't have [bomb detection] robots, then maybe the coordination piece is ensuring the state homeland security adviser understands the value of having robotic capability for bomb squads," he says. "With a matter of, literally, some phone calls or a table-top exercise-some low-cost stuff like that-maybe they can program some grants funds and get some robots."

Funds have been tight for the Office of Bombing Prevention. In 2004, its budget was $14 million. It fell to $13 million in 2005 and to about $7 million in 2006. "I think the amount of attention it's receiving is increasing, and I think the department recognizes it and is doing what it can," Payne says.

That will include accelerated and bolstered anti-IED research in fiscal 2008, Chertoff said at the September hearing. Retired Rear Adm. Jay M. Cohen, DHS' undersecretary for science and technology, has created an integrated product team to help steer basic and applied research in explosive countermeasures. The Office of Bombing Prevention and the Secret Service co-chair the team.

Much of this research is aimed at what experts call getting "left of boom"; if one imagines the activities that culminate in a bombing as a horizontal chronology, most occur far before-or left of-the explosion. Because IEDs are so easy to build and place and so difficult to detect, explosive experts increasingly see disrupting the terrorist network that acquires the raw materials and builds the device-and even preventing radicalization-as an essential part of counterbombing efforts.

Part of that endeavor is Trip Wire, an unclassified Web portal the office created to collect information on terrorist tactics and interests and disseminate it to those who could use it to prevent attacks-not only local bomb squads, but any vetted government official, and eventually some from the private sector as well, whose awareness could help thwart terrorists.

"We have to move further and further left," Payne says. "If we've already got an assembled, large vehicle bomb, then our ability to prevent or interdict and stop that attack is on the order of hours and minutes, maybe, if we're lucky. We've got days, months, maybe even years to stop an attack if we can put those pieces together, illuminate the network . . . and stop the attack at its very genesis."