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But Mr. Nussle’s deputy director for management, Clay Johnson, while acknowledging room for improvement, sounded a different note.

“I think we manage procurement in the federal government today better than ever before,” Mr. Johnson said.

Spending imaginatively

After Sept. 11, the government’s penchant for spending was given new life by the rise of homeland security and counterterrorism.

A top Department of Homeland Security official recently said that his goal was to make sure the government never again suffered from “a lack of imagination” on potential threats.

“We don’t know what all the hazards are right now. We don’t know what all the threats are,” said Bradley Buswell, deputy undersecretary for science and technology at DHS, during a recent speech at George Washington University.

This is why Nevada applied this year for $6.6 million to prevent the type of roadside-bomb attacks being launched against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and why other states have been told they must come up with such a plan.

“Is there any intelligence indicating that improvised explosive devices might be used against American civilians?” Mr. Buswell was asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t sit in on the intelligence briefings,” he said. “It’s easy to imagine that scenario … rather than suffer from the lack of imagination as we did prior to 9/11.”

“You can’t wait until you have intelligence before you start a [science and technology] program,” he said.

Earlier in his talk, Mr. Buswell had shown a headline from the satirical newspaper “The Onion,” showing an attack by “conceptual terrorists,” who had encased the Sears Tower in red Jell-O.

“There’s always room for Jell-O,” Mr. Buswell said.

No one laughed.

A massive new bureaucracy

“I ran on, you know, making sure we didn’t grow the size of government,” Mr. Bush said in a June 11, 2002, speech at Oak Park High School, in Kansas City, Mo.

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