Homeland Security Largely Unaware of Its Own Pricey R&D Investments

Dr. Tara O’Toole, undersecretary for science and technology at DHS, said her department is working to implement the GAO’s recommendations, but noted the difficulty of applying them across the different DHS components.

O’Toole also spoke about the effects of sequestration on her agency, saying that DHS has had to hold back on some R&D projects because of the impact of sequestration on funding.

“R&D is particularly disrupted by budgets that go up and down because when you invest in a project it doesn’t bear fruit for several years. Not only does the sequester threaten to cut funding for projects that are not yet completed…it makes it very difficult for us to decide what projects to begin,” O’Toole said.

She pointed out that the uncertainty created by sequestration wears away on morale and quality of the staff working on these projects.

“In R&D when your budget goes down, you don’t just pedal harder and work longer hours; your project goes away, your work goes away,” O’Toole said.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the committee, asked about some of the work DHS is currently doing to improve activities on the border. The undersecretary said her department is working on several programs to assist agents to protect the border. For instance, she said, DHS has recently done analysis that shows procedures can be changed at no cost to reduce the time agents spend processing illegal aliens they pick up to get them back out to the border. On the southern border, ground surveillance is very important because of more tunnel activity. O’Toole said S&T is trying to figure out how to help agents to use the proper technology to locate these tunnels.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) grilled O’Toole about questionable spending on R&D to develop technologies for combating bio-terrorism.

“I’m trying to make the point that we’ve spent billions on a tool to tell us if we’re having a bio-attack and now there seems to be a consensus that we’ve wasted it,” said McCaskill, chairman of the Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight. “It’s imperative that you have more information on questionable expenditures.”

O’Toole agreed with the Missouri senator that these programs have not gotten sufficient congressional oversight.

McCaskill also focused on O’Toole’s claims that she had no knowledge of former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig’s efforts to persuade the government to determine that antibiotic-resistant anthrax is a threat to the U.S.

According to reports, Danzig’s recommendations influenced DHS’s approval of a plan to purchase and stockpile an antitoxin for drug-resistant anthrax known as raxibacumab, while failing to disclose that he served on the board of the only developer of such a drug, and stood to profit from these contracts.

O’Toole initially eluded the question by saying that DHS does not engage in the development of medical countermeasures, but only in the detection of bio-attacks.

“You’re telling me that in your capacity of responsibility and leadership at the Department of Homeland Security that you have no idea that there has been a serious allegation of a conflict of interest,” McCaskill asked.

After McCaskill’s persistent prodding, O’Toole eventually admitted to having read similar reports about the allegations of conflict of interest, but told the senator: “I don’t believe everything I read.”

O’Toole said she had not been part of the decision to purchase the antitoxin. She also indicated there are technical barriers to developing drug-resistant anthrax, which makes it highly unlikely to be used as a weapon against Americans.