Earlier this week, the House Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies, chaired by Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX), held a hearing entitled, “Examining DHS Science and Technology Directorate’s Engagement with Academia and Industry.” At the end of the hour and 10 minute hearing, I was so frustrated that I wondered whether the committee could take a “mulligan” and start over.

Congressional “do-overs” are rare events, to be sure. But this hearing missed so many opportunities to address the huge issues implicit in this topic that there is no other rational choice. The committee members all but ignored what is actually going on in the DHS Science & Technology Directorate to focus on one or two relatively trivial issues, and their myopia was encouraged by three witnesses who appeared to be accomplices to the debacle rather than advisors on how to understand the problems and fix them.

Lest anyone think the hearing was some kind of circus performance, it was far from that. The questioners gave the appearance of being quite serious, and those testifying came across as earnest in their high-minded, well-meaning comments. But it was not what was actually said that bothered me as much as what was ignored – and that leads me to believe the hearing missed all but the tiniest edge of the target it aimed to hit.

How can you have a hearing about “engagement with academia” and not one time mention the S&T Directorate’s Office of University Programs? Seriously?

Dr. Samuel Aronson, who seemed to be the designated academic on the panel, submitted written testimony that focused, almost exclusively, on the S&T Advisory Committee structure and purpose. For someone who is the former head of the Brookhaven National Laboratory and President of the American Physical Society, which represents physicists in universities, industry and national labs, Dr. Aronson was a pleasant witness but admitted his lack of experience in dealing with DHS. His testimony was based on hearsay. Don’t take my word for it. Here is what he told the committee:

“Although I personally have had somewhat limited direct experience with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), I have known many scientists who have attempted to engage with the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. And their experiences have been mixed, at best. Unlike other federal agencies that have research missions, DHS to the outside world suffers from a lack of transparency and a culture that does not encourage input from our nation’s outstanding science and technology community. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Really? How should it be, then?

Had the committee staff, committee members or Dr. Aronson referenced the S&T University Programs webpage – a relatively easy task – they would have found the office exists to:

“…tap the expertise of the nation’s colleges and universities to tackle tough homeland security challenges through three unique programs.

  • Centers of Excellence Program harnesses the intellectual power of America’s universities for homeland security research, development and education to deliver tools, technologies, knowledge products, training and expertise to the Homeland Security Enterprise.
  • Workforce Development Initiatives educate and train homeland security science and engineering students and professionals for the current and future workforce.
  • Minority Serving Institutions Programs build a diverse homeland security science and engineering workforce through the Centers of Excellence.”

And the University Programs Office is part of the R&D Partnerships (RDP) Group at S&T, which includes the Office of National Labs, an Office of Public-Private Partnerships and an International Cooperative Programs Office. The University Programs Office currently oversees 10 University-led Centers of Excellence and has averaged an annual budget of around $35 million each year over the past few years. Yet not one person mentioned the existing program during the hearing.

Not one!

As outrageous as that may sound, it is far from the worst example of how off-target the hearing came across. That category is reserved for the failure of the two trade association witnesses to mention what is arguably the most successful program in the entire Department of Homeland Security – the Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies (SAFETY) Act program, which is administered by the Science & Technology Directorate.

Although prominent members of the Security Industry Association (SIA) and the Homeland Security & Defense Business Council (HS&DBC) have been active in applying for and receiving liability protection under the SAFETY Act, for reasons that astound me, neither Jake Taylor from SIA nor Marc Pearl from HS&DBC saw fit to mention the program, either in their written testimony nor in their oral presentations. They did not get a single question from committee members on the subject. They did not voluntarily bring it up, despite several opportunities to do so.

How could this be? I know both associations are aware of the program, and their members have benefitted from it. In fact, I know of no other DHS program that engages the private sector more effectively and has more of an impact than the SAFETY Act program. Why do I say this?

As of the date of the hearing, DHS S&T had approved more than 750 individual applications for SAFETY Act coverage. So far in fiscal year 2015 alone:

  • There have been 56 applications approved (5 DT&E Designations, 39 Designations, 12 Certifications), representing total projected technology revenue of more than $2.8 billion;
  • 44% of the approvals were applications from small businesses;
  • The companies winning approval support more than 52,000 U.S. jobs;
  • The average application is processed in less than the 120 days S&T has set as its goal;
  • The Office of SAFETY Act Implementation (OSAI) has aggressively marketed the program to industry, having participated in 40 events just in fiscal year 2015;
  • In FY 14, DHS S&T approved 65 technologies for SAFETY Act coverage, totaling more than $4.15 billion in projected annual technology revenue and supporting more than 75,000 private sector jobs; and
  • They do all this with a staff of five federal employees, plus SETA and FFRDC contracted support.

But even these numbers do not tell the story that Members of Congress should have heard this week. What is most impressive are the stories that successful applicants tell. One client of ours at Catalyst Partners (our firm helps clients with their SAFETY Act applications) said that every time they went through the application process, they discovered better ways to make their businesses more secure and protect their customers and employees from the potentially catastrophic impacts of a terrorist attack.

The SAFETY Act program is efficiently run, effectively managed and exceptional in its industry engagement. It actually works. Yet, it was never mentioned once in a hearing about “industry engagement.”

This is not a program that engages the private sector in narrow verticals. Just during the past calendar year, approvals shown on the OSAI website have included:

  • Critical infrastructure
    • 3 NFL stadiums (Univ of Phoenix Stadium, FedEx Field, NRG Houston)
    • Newark Liberty Airport
    • Two major national mall companies
  • Block Designations
    • EPA-developed vulnerability self-assessment tool
    • Supply chain security – Tier 3 in C-TPAT
    • Security for nuclear medicine materials via deployment of in-line delay devices
  • Innovative/new technologies
    • A non-intrusive screening technology
    • A methodology for assessing and examining holistic cybersecurity risk
    • A controlled impact rescue tool
    • A program for secure delivery of new commercial aircraft to customers
    • A software package designed to create secure, closed network environments
    • A software platform that executes suspicious content in a virtual machine environment

And that list only highlights a few of the success stories that S&T and industry representatives could tell.

Thus, I think it is time for the Homeland Security Committee to hold a “do-over” session, and this time talk about “substantive” programs instead of “process” complaints. It is time the committee learned about the good work going on at the University Centers of Excellence. It is time the committee learned about the incredible return on investment the private sector and government jointly get from OSAI.

It is time we do better than the Homeland Security committee did this past week at effective oversight and investigation.

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More