Trying to Find the 'Secure' in Security
How new technical fixes could help defend the homeland
Rear Adm. Jay Cohen, the man now leading the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate, picked a heck of a time to start work. On August 10, the day the United Kingdom arrested 24 suspects for allegedly plotting to blow up 10 U.S.-bound airliners with liquid explosives, Cohen was sworn in. Within 24 hours, he ran a teleconference with officials from the country's national laboratories on liquid explosives and established a rapid-response team of chemists to study ways to detect slurry bombs. "I'm from the Navy," says Cohen. "This is just how I do business."
Which is a big deal, because for years DHS's research and development efforts -especially in the 600-person Science and Technology Directorate-haven't been much to brag about. Now, Cohen, a man who spent six years overseeing a group he calls "the country's premier mad scientists" as head of research for the U.S. Navy, could change that. But Cohen's new gig will be a major challenge. DHS efforts to upgrade airport security hit a major roadblock this summer. And insiders say the directorate Cohen inherits-which also focuses on port and mass transit security-is in tatters. "The guy's got the chops," says Jim Carafano of the Heritage Foundation. But will that be enough?
Carafano says the directorate, which commissions work from teams at all of the Department of Energy's national labs and six universities, hasn't produced "much of anything that shouldn't be junked." This summer Congress withdrew $200 million of S&Ts funding from previous years that hadn't yet been spent; Senate appropriators described the directorate as a "rudderless ship" in a report. "We know there was malfeasance in the management," Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the senior homeland security appropriator, told U.S. News. One high-level employee says S&T lost roughly one third of its staff within the past six months.
Dusty portals. There have been other technology setbacks as well, involving DHS's Transportation Security Administration, which oversees the country's 43,000 airport screeners; in late August, TSA's lab merged with S&T. After investing $30 million on explosive detection trace portals-the "puffer" machines that screen for explosive residue by blasting passengers' clothes with bursts of air-the TSA put an ambitious plan to install the devices in 81 airports on hold. Dust and dirt, TSA Chief Kip Hawley says, made the machines, which "worked beautifully in the labs," break down and suffer maintenance troubles in airports. So far, only 93 machines are in place, out of 340 that were promised by 2007.
The London plot highlighted other controversies. Democrat Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon pounded the TSA for not installing more backscatter machines, X-ray devices already used in the U.K. that let screeners see if someone is concealing hidden weapons beneath their clothes. Hawley, however, dismisses the technology as "impracticable" because it takes a full minute to capture an image. Liquid explosive detectors weren't ready this summer either, even though TSA solicited such devices in August 2004 and tested 10 of them in labs this spring. Doug Kahn, chairman and CEO of Boston-based Ahura Corp., which had a device in the tests, says feedback was nonexistent. "If they just pointed us in the right direction," he says, "we would happily adapt these machines to do whatever they need."
A thousand flowers. But that was before Cohen was in charge. In mid-August, he publicly solicited ideas for liquid explosives testing methods and attracted 60 submissions. "The biggest difference is his entrepreneurial approach," says Hawley, who added that Cohen reached out to "individual inventors, mom and pop companies, and labs" that aren't typical TSA contractors. The 10 devices previously tested, meanwhile, were moved to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology for rigorous "real world" tests. Next up: Studying simulated explosions to determine if some small volumes of liquids should be tolerated in flight because they couldn't produce dangerous explosions.
The liquid-screening technologies are varied: Machines using so-called Raman technology shoot a beam of light into containers and analyze a liquid by how it's refracted. (Ahura's device, already used by New York firefighters and the U.S. military, has almost 3,000 chemicals in its library of images.) Others use sound waves or electromagnetic pulses to similar effect. Cohen hopes to deliver recommendations on the technology to TSA by the end of 2006. He also wants to encourage new technologies. "You plant a thousand flowers," says Cohen, before you "decide which ones to harvest."
Cohen also plans to reorganize the directorate into themed research areas by October. And he held a meeting with all of his employees during his first week to buoy morale. At least a few workers who had already offered resignations decided to stay, but Cohen still needs to persuade a skeptical Congress that was ready to slice his funding almost in half to stick by him. "The consensus up here," says Gregg, "is that we should give him a chance." And in a world of experiments, a chance is a lot.
This story appears in the October 2, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.