Lawmakers debate anti-terrorism technology progress

Lawmakers and Homeland Security Department officials agree that progress has been made in implementing the Support for Anti-terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies (SAFETY) Act and addressing the concerns of contractors and others in the private sector.

But they also say that much still remains to be done before DHS has a sound, functioning system that promotes cutting edge anti-terrorism technology and is inclusive of small and minority-owned businesses.

The act was the main topic of discussion Sept. 13 during a joint hearing by the House Homeland Security Committee's Management, Integration and Oversight and Emergency Preparedness, Science and Technology subcommittees.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the management subcommittee, said the purpose of the law is to spur the development and deployment of innovative anti-terrorism technologies. “The bill does this, in part, by limiting the liability exposure of companies that provide those technologies in the event of a terrorist attack,” he said.

But he added that since the law was enacted, the number of companies applying to DHS for SAFETY Act protection “has fallen well below expectations.”

He said the disappointing performance is being blamed on the department’s slow evaluative and approval process, which was averaging 150 days or more; understaffing in the appropriate DHS offices; and a lingering doubt about the act’s ability to protect technology providers from liability.

This summer, DHS issued its final rule to implement the act and its revised application kit that addresses many of the concerns, Rogers said. Industry’s feedback has been mostly positive, he added.

Jay Cohen, undersecretary for science and technology at DHS, said he was encouraged that more than 100 companies are engaged in developing anti-terrorism technologies under the SAFETY Act. The most recent approval came, he added, appropriately on Sept. 11.

He said the final rule had reduced the evaluation cycle from 150 to a maximum of 120 days, with many applications being processed quicker than that, without diluting the quality of the process. “But we can do better,” he said.

He called DHS’ record of processing applications troubling, especially the department’s numerous requests for information, which have caused “unnecessary delay and imposed undue burdens on applicants,” he said.

Cohen said he plans to have a new organization to handle SAFETY Act applications and reviews in place within three weeks.

Elaine Duke, chief procurement officer at DHS, told the lawmakers that the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer is partnering with the Science and Technology Directorate and the Office of SAFETY Act Implementation to facilitate communication and align processes that will make it easier for companies to come under the protection of the SAFETY Act.

But Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said DHS has done a poor job of promoting anti-terrorism technologies under the act. “We’re still reinventing the wheel five years after” the 2001 attacks, he said.

Referring to the recently thwarted terrorist plot uncovered in London, he said, “We [still] do not have the technology to deal with liquid explosives, and that’s unacceptable.”

He said the SAFETY Act office should not be testing technologies the way the Food and Drug Administration tests new drugs. “I have never sensed any urgency in DHS” to bring out anti-terrorism technologies, he added.

Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, said his organization supports fast-tracking the application process for vendors that have been designated to provide technology and have satisfied the technical criteria of the act. “We strongly recommend that this pre-qualification designation notice be incorporated in the application kit,” he said.

Soloway said the SAFETY Act should be a gas pedal rather than a brake on deploying new anti-terrorism technologies.

About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.

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