David Olive

Jun 10, 2009

Sitting through Dr. Tara O’Toole’s confirmation hearing this morning, I was struck by the first time I heard of “O’Toole’s Commentary” to the infamous Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”) which says that “Murphy was an optimist.” (You can even get “O’Toole Commentary” hats, mugs and other memorabilia at http://www.murphywasanoptimist.com.)

While there are several ways to interpret “O’Toole’s Commentary” for purposes of this morning’s confirmation hearing, it would seem that occasionally some things go “right.” This morning’s hearing was the “right” moment for Dr. Tara O’Toole and it went smoothly for her. However, if confirmed to be the Under Secretary for Science and Technology at DHS, there are some potential traps that lie in her pathway to success that need to be clarified – and quickly.

It is clear that Dr. O’Toole is comfortable in front of a congressional committee. She has a conversational style and an air of confidence in her tone that should similarly inspire confidence in lawmakers and her S&T staff. So WHAT, if in the heat of the hearing she referred to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano as “Senator.” Or that she referred to CBP as “Customs and Border Patrol” instead of “Customs and Border Protection.” The fact is that she KNOWS the important role that scientific research and technology development can play in protecting the country – and she will be a forceful advocate for the same. That is the good news for S&T, DHS and those of us who depend upon their work to protect our communities. Dr. O’Toole also got an opportunity to address the issues that some critics have raised about her role in biosecurity exercises, such as Dark Winter, and her answers seemed to satisfy the committee, if not her few but vocal detractors.

In her testimony, Dr. O’Toole laid out her four priorities, if confirmed, which are: (1) building better relations with operational components of DHS and the first responder community; (2) increasing the budget for innovative, longer-term technology projects that will be “game changers” in protecting the country; (3) establishing a strategic 5 year approach to Research and Development (R&D); and (4) putting more resources into creating resilient communities through more robust public-private sector partnerships. All are laudable objectives, and the increased funding for longer-term innovative technology development sends the “right” message that S&T is still willing to take big risks in order to achieve big results.

There are some areas where Dr. O’Toole needs to address questions that were left open this morning, and it is in these areas where Murphy’s Law potentially looms large. First, in response to a question from Senator Lieberman, she said that in her mind, DHS S&T should be modeled more like DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) . There are many who believe that S&T’s role differs significantly from the role that DARPA plays for the Defense Department, and since the S&T Under Secretary already has the legislative authority to leverage what other government agencies are doing, one wonders why we would need two DARPA’s? This question needs further clarification.

Second, O’Toole completely missed an opportunity to talk about successful S&T programs like the implementation of the SAFETY Act, where qualified anti-terrorism technology is provided with limited liability protection in exchange for developing and deploying products and services that better protect us. One wonders whether she is even aware of the SAFETY Act program because in almost every other Congressional hearing I have attended where a DHS official has appeared, “success stories” seem to be sprinkled throughout their testimonies.

Third, her emphasis on incorporating resiliency into the workings of S&T is noteworthy and is a theme that should be encouraged throughout all of DHS. And her emphasis on building off of the social science research about human behavior in response and recovery after an “incident” is the absolute right place to start. The looming issue in this approach, however, is that the Human Factors division’s budget has been sliced up over the past few years to the point where it has had to borrow money from other S&T divisions in order to maintain basic operations. Dr. O’Toole needs to be aware that the study of human factors is critical to delivering on the promise of building resilient attitudes, and she will need to fight entrenched interests within her own operation (starting with the S&T CFO) who have different attitudes about the significance of the work that S&T is doing in this area.

Finally, her comment about better integrating the component operational agencies, such as CBP, into the work of the S&T Divisions is commendable, but suggesting that S&T should look into developing technology to address semi-submersibles being used by drug cartels in Mexico shows a lack of knowledge of anti-submarine warfare technology that was developed during the Cold War but has not been deployed by DHS due to funding issues. This is NOT a technology development issue, as I understand it, and Dr. O’Toole’s responses did not give me confidence that her hearing preparation was as thorough as it should have been.

All in all, she did a good job this morning and will be confirmed easily, unless something new arises post-hearing. But Murphy’s Law infects a lot of what DHS tries to do, O’Toole’s commentary notwithstanding. We shall see what develops as she assumes the helm of the important but underappreciated Science and Technology Directorate.

This piece was originally posted at Security Debrief.


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