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

WASHINGTON – The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spends millions dollars on research and development every year even though it is in the dark about where and how much of these resources are used.

The DHS pumps more than $1 billion a year into research and development, but does not know how much its components invest in research and development (R&D), according to David Maurer, director of the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) homeland security and justice division.

As part of its “DHS at 10 Years” series examining the effectiveness of the department in the past decade, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee held a hearing Wednesday on DHS’s Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate.

Since it began its operations in 2003, DHS has spent billions of dollars researching and developing technologies used to support a wide rage of missions, including nuclear detectors and screening technology for airline passengers, among others.

S&T was created by Congress to coordinate R&D for DHS and protect the nation by providing federal, state, and local officials with state-of-the-art technology and resources. Although the Directorate conducts R&D, other DHS components, such as the U.S. Coast Guard and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), also have their own R&D programs in support of their respective missions.

The S&T Directorate, the DNDO, and the Coast Guard are the only components that conduct R&D and report budget expenditures to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as part of OMB’s requirements.

A 2009 report by the National Academy of Public Administration noted that S&T had no authority over other federal agencies that conduct homeland security-related research, and as a result increased the risk for duplication among the different DHS components.

The DHS’s lack of a standard definition for R&D or guidance to its components about how to report research activities has made it more difficult for the department to identify its total investment in R&D. According to Maurer, this hampers the agency’s ability to be strategic in its planning.

“Having a common definition will help gain strategic visibility over R&D activities,” Maurer said. “It’s not going to be an easy thing to come up with, but it’s important.”

GAO found 35 instances worth roughly $66 million in which contracts overlapped with activities conducted elsewhere within DHS. In one example of the overlap, GAO found two DHS components awarded five separate contracts that each addressed detection of the same chemical. Currently, there is no process in place at DHS or S&T to prevent overlap or unnecessary duplication.

The good news for DHS is that even though GAO “dug in deeply” to find unnecessary duplication, it did not uncover any, Maurer added. But, he added, GAO only looked within DHS and did not look outside the department for overlap with other government programs.

In 2011, GAO found an additional $250 million spent by other DHS components on R&D.

“That is not necessarily bad if it’s done by design. The problem occurs when it is not done strategically and it is not done intentionally. When that happens it raises the risk of unnecessary duplication, and that’s a problem because you end up wasting money,” Maurer said.

DHS has yet to develop a policy defining who is tasked with coordinating R&D activities at DHS that could help to prevent overlap, fragmentation, or duplication. In June 2012, S&T sent for review to the White House a draft strategy that identified the roles and responsibilities for coordinating homeland security science and technology functions across the U.S. government. As of July, the White House has not yet approved the draft.

“Going forward, DHS needs to address common definition of R&D — what’s research and development and what isn’t,” Maurer stressed. Better coordination and improved tracking of R&D projects and the costs involved will help with overall strategic visibility, he added.

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.