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We Must Circle the Right Wagons

Go slow in putting scientists under a security umbrella.

July 16, 2002|MICHAEL O'HANLON

There is much to like in the Bush administration's sweeping plan to provide more effective homeland security by reorganizing the federal government. But the plan goes too far. And because studies suggest that 70% of organizational mergers either fail or produce just marginal benefit, Congress needs to think hard before acting.

President Bush's plan for a Department of Homeland Security would bring about 200,000 federal employees at 22 agencies under a single roof, with a budget of more than $35 billion a year. Instead of approving the administration's proposal, Congress should adopt a simpler and less ambitious reorganization this year as a first step. More complex and less urgent issues--such as how to reorganize the government's scientific research and development activities to provide more effective protection for our country--can be contemplated next year.

As a number of Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been arguing for months, some type of reorganization and consolidation of the federal government makes sense in response to terrorism. This is especially true in situations where a number of existing agencies perform closely related functions. Certainly it is a sound idea to merge the Coast Guard, Customs Service and Border Patrol, as well as parts of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, because they all deal with the movement of people and goods across U.S. borders. It also makes sense to reorganize the government in cases where federal capabilities are very limited today. For example, we know that we need much better fusion of intelligence data coming from the FBI and CIA and other sources.

We also must do a better job of protecting our national infrastructure--not just airports and airplanes but trains and subways, bridges and tunnels, power plants and power grids, large buildings and stadiums and so on. This will require cooperation between federal, state, local and private sectors.

But there are other parts of the administration's plan that do not make as much sense--such as putting under a new Department of Homeland Security about $2.5 billion in health-related research, as well as $1.2 billion in research in the physical sciences now done primarily at California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. This proposal raises many more questions than it answers. For example: Why is the research now done at Lawrence Livermore to be under the department but the work done at the Department of Energy's other main laboratories to stay put?

Much research at places like Sandia and Los Alamos--the other two big Department of Energy laboratories traditionally specializing in nuclear issues--is relevant to homeland security as well. Scientists at those facilities develop sensors for nuclear and biological weapons, figure out how to clean up radiological or chemical contamination, work with Russia to better secure its dangerous weapons before they can be seized by terrorists, etc. Yet only Livermore's budget would go to a Homeland Security Department.

What is the case for reorganizing outstanding health research institutes such as the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health? These organizations already do fine work dealing with the bioterrorism threat. Are we sure the new plan, which would take budgetary power out of the hands of health specialists and give it to Homeland Security, would improve the situation? Moreover, how can we divide up health research into civilian and military units? Research on developing better antidotes to possible biological attack is strongly related to investigations of various diseases.

Finally, we have homeland security needs that do not involve chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons. How does the Bush administration propose improving research for these priorities? The Bush plan, which focuses only on weapons of mass destruction, is silent on those matters. By contrast, a recent National Research Council report talks about many other vulnerabilities--to the power grid, to buildings, to our borders--where science may have a great deal to offer. A better reorganization plan would address such issues.

The Bush administration is right to put scientific research squarely on the homeland security agenda. But its first cut at how to improve such research is unconvincing. Moreover, good research is already being done to address the terrorist threat today, so it is hard to see the case for urgent governmental reorganization.

Congress should restructure the government for border security, infrastructure protection and intelligence fusion as soon as possible. But the science issue is one of several where patience is a virtue. We should return to the issue next year once more urgent matters are tended to, and after we have more time to consider our options.

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Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is coauthor of the institution's study "Assessing the Department of Homeland Security."

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