Science and Homeland Security

Image: Anthony Canamucio Even as a furor arose recently in the US Congress over failures to communicate between intelligence agencies that contributed to America's unreadiness for the terrorist attacks last September, President George W. Bush's proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security was being concocted in extreme secrecy. This left many government officials in an awkward position: having staunchly defended the administration's opposition to the idea of a new department, they were

By | July 8, 2002

Image: Anthony Canamucio

Even as a furor arose recently in the US Congress over failures to communicate between intelligence agencies that contributed to America's unreadiness for the terrorist attacks last September, President George W. Bush's proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security was being concocted in extreme secrecy. This left many government officials in an awkward position: having staunchly defended the administration's opposition to the idea of a new department, they were forced without warning to sing the praises of the very thing that they had disparaged. This reporter happened to catch Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) director John H. Marburger III in just such a quandary. His deft extrication speaks well to the political skills that scientists want from their presidential adviser but, inevitably, it also raises a question: What actually is the best organizational structure for advancing the cause of counterbioterrorism research?

On the morning of June 6, even as the government began to unveil the proposal in preparation for the president's televised statement that evening, Marburger described how the existing Office of Homeland Security (OHS) within the Executive Office of the President was a better structure for scientists than would be a Department of Homeland Security. He agreed that OHS was regarded by many on Capitol Hill as a paper tiger, because it lacks budgetary power over the so-called line agencies that spend the money and do the work. But he added that he was "a little surprised that it's become such a hot issue." Both OHS and OSTP are staff organizations, he pointed out, whose jobs are to coordinate the activities of cabinet-level departments and other agencies, and to enforce executive branch policies. Even if a Department of Homeland Security were created, he argued, staff organizations would still be needed to improve communication and reduce duplication between the new department and other line agencies.

Moreover, the formation of OHS after the September attacks followed a template set by organizations like OSTP and the National Security Council. In other words, the way that science and technology's interests are represented in government provided lessons in the ways to best advance the interests of homeland security. "I rely on the [National] Academies for technical expertise," Marburger said. "They rely on my office for finding out what the right receptor is for those ideas in federal government."

THE ASYMMETRIC ADVANTAGE In several speeches since he took office toward the end of last year, the director championed OSTP's ability to influence government for scientists by creating interagency committees to share information and ideas. In a May speech to the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, Marburger declared, "The greatest drawback of the current system of federally funded research is also regarded by many as a strength."1 The numerous agencies involved in science funding preclude the destabilization of research that could occur through budget cuts if all science were under one umbrella, he explained. In April, he assured a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee that, against the so-called asymmetric threat of terrorism, "science and technology will continue to play a pivotal role; it represents our 'asymmetric' advantage."2

Yet, Marburger also has advocated the need for a new "battlefield map" in a war that has no conventional boundaries. He has spoken of the need for a taxonomy, a common language through which the various threats of terrorism can be systematically addressed. He even commissioned the RAND Corporation to produce such a taxonomy. The result, he said, was "very comprehensive but it doesn't have a neat structure." He added, "I believe we have a pretty good first cut at all the areas that need to be protected and the first responses you'd need for each area." But he admitted that something is still missing: a logically structured, cross-indexed checklist covering protection from, response to, and recovery from all terrorist threats to vulnerable systems such as transportation and energy, or use of weapons of mass destruction.

Such a map of the battlefield would actually be more like a three-dimensional matrix, Marburger said. The difficulty is that, unlike the Department of Defense's military mandate, a homeland defense matrix must encompass civilian infrastructure. "This is the big problem," he observed. "Where do you draw the line between activities in a homeland security agency and the activities you'd put in a normal agency?" Such a new department would need jurisdictions over practically every aspect of government and society. He acknowledged that many citizens want to see one person in charge of such an important task and clear lines of control. "But when you have a complicated mission to carry out, you have to have a complicated organizational structure."

All this argued for a diffuse, multi-agency approach to homeland security, with OSTP brokering the needs of science and technology researchers to the appropriate governmental bodies. To bolster his case, Marburger cited a recent report from the Brookings Institution, a public-policy think tank in Washington, DC. The report, by a team of seven economists and foreign affairs experts, examined these organizational issues and concluded that interagency coordination is preferable to a single agency.3

The report did note a number of strengths in a single-agency model, including increased clarity of responsibilities and accountability, better communications, enhanced implementation of policies, direct budgetary authority, and more political power for homeland security. But these were outweighed by the impossibility of embracing many relevant functions in defense, justice, health and human services, and intelligence. Coordination of such a department's activities by an "honest broker" that could invoke the White House's authority would be needed, the report affirmed, to minimize fights over turf with other agencies whose cooperation would be crucial.

The authors praised the administration's decision to set up an office, rather than a department, of homeland security, and to form a council as the main coordinating body. Comprising the president, vice president, and nine departmental secretaries or agency directors, the council met as often as twice weekly, the report said. But as it turned out, only one council member--Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr.--was among the few who planned the proposed department. The others, whose agencies would be depleted by the newcomer, were left in the dark.

File Photo
 John H. Marburger

MUCH TO SORT OUT The president's plan does include a homeland security adviser within the White House, to do what Marburger's office does for science and technology. By the same token, Marburger and the report's authors were correct in noting that the proposed department--which would draw 169,000 employees and more than $37 billion (US) from other agencies--nevertheless leaves out many functions related to homeland security. For example, much of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California would be transferred to the new agency, including 324 employees and $1.2 billion in annual funding. Yet, several other national laboratories also do biodefense research. Similarly, the Department of Health and Human Services would lose 150 employees and almost $2 billion, much of that apparently coming from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). But not all research on infectious diseases would leave NIAID and, of course, a great deal of other work in the National Institutes of Health could have applications to biodefense. The National Pharmaceutical Stockpile, now managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would also move into the new department.

On June 25, the National Academies released a much-anticipated report on science and counterterrorism.4 Among its proposals was that a nonprofit Homeland Security Institute be established, to evaluate protective systems for critical infrastructures and analyze vulnerabilities. (Interestingly, the Department of Defense's 2003 budget calls for $25 million to improve threat assessment capabilities in a new Center for Biological Counterterrorism Research.) The report also advises that Bush's Department of Homeland Security should include an undersecretary for technology, to improve government liaison between science bodies, OSTP, and the proposed institute.

Pundits were quick to predict long and bitter jurisdictional struggles as Congress responds to the president's goal of legislation by year's end. But, predictably, agency heads contacted by reporters from The New York Times and The Washington Post had nothing bad to say about the proposal. The day after the announcement, Marburger asserted in a second interview that he favored the idea. His reason for this change of heart was that the scope of the proposed department far exceeded the imaginings of the Brookings Institution's report authors or anyone else. "Individuals and scientific organizations shouldn't see a big difference in the environments they have to work in," he said, because entire groups would be transferred into the new department. "I'm very impressed with the boldness of this scheme. Just the scale of it solves a lot of turf problems."

Marburger did not expect much effect on his own office, except that its science advisory and coordinating services would be extended to the new department, and it would phase out a technical rapid-response team formed in October. Given the presence of a homeland security adviser within the White House, OSTP's role would just be to help if needed. This would be a much clearer approach to government for scientists involved in homeland security research, Marburger contended. And the more he talked, the more certain he sounded.

Steve Bunk ( is a contributing editor.

1. J.H. Marburger, "Statement before the subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities, Committee On Armed Services, United States Senate," April 10, 2002, available online at:

2. J. H. Marburger, "Council of Scientific Society Presidents, National Summit on the US Science Enterprise: New Direction?" May 2, 2002, available online at:

3. M.E. O'Hanlon et al., Protecting the American Homeland: A Preliminary Analysis, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2002.

4. Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism, National Research Council, Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism, Washington, DC, National Academy Press, 2002, prepublication copy:\

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