Technology standards agency plays up role in homeland security

Concurrent with the Bush administration's increased focus on homeland security and the high-tech sector, the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will receive greater attention, senior department officials said Wednesday.

"What seems clear is that NIST is playing a significant science and technology role on behalf of the department," Benjamin Wu, deputy undersecretary for technology, told National Journal's Technology Daily after a department press briefing.

Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, speaking on a conference call from a visit to high-tech firms in North Carolina, said NIST is "one of the real treasures" in the federal government with a "tremendous track record." He said it had an important role to play in the President's "No. 1 priority"-- to "win the war" on terrorism.

Evans said he saw some "encouraging signs" for the tech industry, such as a report that inventories are "as low as the industry can tolerate" and so will need to be replenished. He also said a recent report showed that technology sales were up in December.

Arden Bement, who stepped into his role as director of NIST in December, told reporters he has four main goals for the agency.

Bement said he intends to strengthen NIST programs that have "high importance" for the nation in light of the heightened emphasis on homeland security. He said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks served to focus researchers and policymakers on NIST initiatives and gave them "immediacy."

The second priority will be to help with the creation of a national standards strategy that promotes U.S. interests and access to international markets. He also will stress support for NIST's "world-class" research staff and facilities.

Finally, he said he would follow Evans' plan to "provide stability" and reform to the Advanced Technology Program (ATP), which helps companies develop innovative technologies. Bement and Wu said a report on the administration's review of the ATP should be issued within weeks.

Wu said the administration intends to make the ATP report public and share it with Congress at the time of the President's budget request, which traditionally occurs in early February. When asked, Wu would not say how the ATP would be budgeted, but he mentioned "tight budget constraints" and "competing pressures."

While officials declined to discuss whether NIST would receive a boost in the president's fiscal 2003 budget request, they stressed the agency's key role in homeland security.

For instance, NIST is part of an 800-member consortium working to develop biometric technology, such as fingerprint or facial analysis, for government security uses. It also developed a system that analyzed precisely the structural aspect of the World Trade Centers' collapse. It further helped with the irradiation of mail to kill anthrax bacteria.

NIST also managed the competition that resulted in the selection of the algorithm that is the basis for the "advanced encryption standard," which replaced the old government encryption standard in December. The government hopes the private sector will follow suit in adopting the algorithm, which should remain effective for at least 20 years.

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