Some observers support the House proposal to study ways to consolidate WMD programs, but are skeptical of a potential merger between the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and Office of Health Affairs specifically.
Retired Air Force Col. Randall Larsen, chief executive officer of the non-profit WMD Center, told GSN that a better approach to consolidating DHS programs that deal with WMD issues would be to place the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office under the auspices of the DHS Science and Technology Office. Such a change might focus the nuclear detection office’s attention more heavily on the research and development of new nuclear-detection technologies, rather than on efforts to deploy existing technology, he said.
Larsen contends that today’s DHS detection technology is inadequate. Rather than expend resources trying to use it, the department should instead focus on developing new technology, he said.
For example, a terrorist with an improvised nuclear device -- a crude weapon capable of catastrophic destruction -- could “shield it from our detectors with aluminum foil,” Larsen argues. “You don’t even need to use lead.”
To Larsen, it “doesn’t make a lot of sense” to merge the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office with the Office of Health Affairs. He noted that not all of the health-office programs are related to WMD issues, such as its Workforce Health and Medical Support Division, which is focused largely on ensuring the occupational health of DHS employees.
Despite his reservations, Larsen said he is supportive of the House plan to study the issue, however.
Other experts say they support a potential merger between the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and the Office of Health Affairs, but are skeptical of a merger that would include the Science and Technology office.
Jeffrey Runge, who oversaw the Office of Health Affairs as DHS assistant secretary for health affairs and chief medical officer during the Bush administration, told GSN that it “makes a lot of sense” to combine the operational WMD programs under one unified team.
However, Runge said that including the Science and Technology Office in such a merger could have the negative impact of taking the department’s focus off the research and development of emerging technologies. He voiced concern about the possibility of deploying devices that may not yet be adequate.
“It’s a policy question -- should S&T be centralized or decentralized back into operational programs,” Runge said. “I favor the centralized approach.”
Runge pointed to BioWatch Generation 3 -- a DHS program aimed at developing devices that can detect biological threats in real time -- as an example of an initiative that has faced technical challenges.
One lesson he draws from that program is that the department should put more of an emphasis on developing better technologies rather than trying to use those that have not proven themselves to be effective. In some cases, initiatives like BioWatch Generation 3 that once were high priorities might have to be shelved, “as painful as it is,” said Runge.
The Senate Appropriations Committee placed restrictions on funds for BioWatch Generation 3 in its version of the Homeland Security fiscal 2013 spending bill, citing similar concerns.
While the bill provides the $39.9 million that the Office of Health Affairs requested for the program, a “provision is included in the bill withholding [$28.5 million] from obligation for Generation 3 until the [Homeland Security] secretary certifies to the committee that the science used to develop the technology is sound and warrants operational testing and evaluation,” the report accompanying the Senate legislation says.
An “October 2011 report by the Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Research Center determined that the usefulness of BioWatch is unclear,” the Senate committee said. “[The] next major phase of development should be undertaken only if the secretary determines that the system can reliably perform.
“Therefore, requested funds are provided for performance testing and program management; however, funds for operational testing and evaluation shall not be obligated until the secretary certifies that it is prudent,” the report concludes.
Asked about the differing opinions regarding how to best consolidate the department’s WMD programs, a congressional aide familiar with the House plan said that while the focus is on a merger between the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and the Office of Health Affairs, the scope of the study is “not necessarily exclusive to just those two.”
In this vein, the House report calls on the department to “take a more holistic approach toward realignment by considering and describing any functions proposed to be transferred into the new Office from elsewhere in the Department to better align the WMD portfolio.” It also directs that “the secretary’s plan consider and detail the impacts of realigning certain functions outside of the new office,” including the Office of Health Affairs’ Workforce Health and Medical Support Division and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office’s research and development activities.
The congressional aide said that the report language calling for the merger study was the result of bipartisan discussions that involved both the House Appropriations Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee.