Homeland Security asks for more tech money

The head of the science and technology office of the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security has promised to work with other federal agencies and private vendors to develop technologies such as biometrics scanners of fingerprints or eye irises for use at U.S. border crossings.

The Department of Homeland Security is asking for a 43 percent budget increase for science and technology programs from fiscal year 2003 to 2004, with a new research agency getting about US$350 million of the agency’s $803 million ’04 budget request.

Charles McQueary, undersecretary for science and technology under the newly organized agency, went to the U.S. Congress Thursday with his budget request, which includes money for research into technologies that would counter biological, chemical and nuclear threats to the U.S.

McQueary, speaking at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Homeland Security, told senators he wanted big-picture ideas from people in private industry, not just pitches on how their products can help with homeland security.

Senator Thad Cochran, chairman of the subcommittee, said senators are already getting bombarded with ideas for homeland security technologies. “How are you going to go about reviewing all these requests?” asked Cochran, a Republican from Mississippi. “You’re going to have more suggestions, more ideas on how to improve the state of the world …. How are you going to deal with that?”

McQueary said he plans to use the Technology Support Working Group, a Department of Defense clearinghouse for counterterrorism technologies, to generate ideas for technologies to use from the private sector. Instead of vendors asking him, “How can you use my solution?” McQueary said he’s asking, “Help me define what the solution needs to be.”

“We have some very talented people, but I can assure you we will not have the talent to be able to see all the possibilities,” he added. “We need people to come in with ideas to help us think about … how to attack the problem.”

The new department’s science and technology budget of $561 million during fiscal year 2003, which ends in September, came from Department of Defense money, as the Homeland Security Department was being organized before March 1, McQueary said. Many of the requests in the budget are for new programs.

The cornerstone of the budget request is the proposed Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, modeled after the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), which has come under fire this spring from privacy advocates worried about its Total Information Awareness data-mining research project. DARPA was also the original developer of ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet.

Among the goals of the Homeland Security science and technology directorate will be protecting critical infrastructure, including cybersecurity. The 2004 science and technology budget includes $5 million for protecting critical infrastructure, including physical infrastructure such as roads and national monuments.

Senator Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, questioned the new science and technology budget, suggesting at different times that parts of it were too large or too small. Byrd urged McQueary to create some performance standards for his new office so that Congress could decide if workers there were spending money wisely. But Byrd also questioned whether $350 million was enough for the new advanced research agency.

McQueary said that figure is an estimate, but he believed it would be enough.

Byrd also asked if McQueary believed the U.S. was now adequately protected against chemical, biological or radiological attacks.

The science and technology office is responsible for improving that protection, McQueary answered. “The country has decided we’re not adequately protected, and more needs to be done,” he added.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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