DHS Technology Chief Nominee Can’t Escape Past Controversies

By Tessa Gellerson
President Obama’s nominee to take over the Department of Homeland Security’s struggling science and technology directorate found at her Senate confirmation hearing that it’s impossible to escape one’s past in Washington.

Tara Jeanne O’Toole arrives from a stint directing the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh. It is not the physician’s first appointment to the federal government. She served as assistant secretary at the Department of Energy from 1993 to 1997.

At her confirmation hearing, she faced questions about two controversial bioterrorism simulations she designed in 2001 and 2005 that portrayed possible health and safety consequences of bioterrorist attacks.

The Dark Winter and Atlantic Storm simulations were met with harsh criticism when they were released. Her detractors contended that the likelihood and consequences of such an attack were exaggerated. Since her nomination, her critics have reemerged on venues such as Fox News to strongly oppose her nomination.

During her first nomination in 1993, O’Toole was grilled over her involvement in an academic book club called the “Marxist Feminist Group 1.” The controversy resulted in an FBI investigation and two “no” votes from senators. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, brought up the issue again so O’Toole could have a chance to “clear the record.” She maintained that it was a reading group that “was not Marxist in any way shape or form.”

If  confirmed, O’Toole would take over from Jay Cohen, who left the department to join a consulting group led by former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. She would inherit a directorate that Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said at the hearing “has had a difficult launch.”

This year, the department’s technology programs have experienced a litany of bad news. The Transportation Security Administration finally pulled the plug on malfunctioning “puffer machines” designed to sniff out explosive particles emitting from passengers. Because of privacy concerns, Congress also took steps to halt TSA’s deployment of body scanners that peered through clothes. Meanwhile, it was revealed that the long-delayed Project 28 technology demonstration could not send live streaming video to Border Patrol vehicles as promised.

Finally, the Government Accountability Office said advanced radiation detection portal monitors intended to reveal nuclear material in shipping containers have showed no improvement over the poorly functioning first generation versions of the technology, although these monitors do not fall under the directorate’s purview.

Collins said O’Toole “will also need to align DHS research and development priorities with the greatest security vulnerabilities that our nation faces.”

O’Toole said she would seek to boost fundamental research and increase the input of end users of DHS technology such as Border Patrol agents and TSA screeners.

“While I believe that DHS’ operational needs continue to demand significant investments in near-term technology development, I am persuaded that the [science and technology] enterprise would benefit from additional investments in fundamental scientific discovery,” she said.

She said she would also “set meaningful project milestones and then sustain, cancel or rethink projects based on whether milestones are achieved.”

Topics: Homeland Security, DHS Leadership

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