- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2002

Jeffrey David's little-known interagency group has become a focal point in the federal government's effort to fight terrorism. For nearly 20 years, his Technology Support Working Group has searched for the best technology for law enforcement, intelligence agents and the military. But since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the group has sifted through thousands of plans outlining technology projects that could thwart terrorists.

With a budget of more than $50 million this year, the technology group will ferret out and fund the most promising ideas. The federal investment in companies speeds up research so useful high-tech tools can be developed quickly and placed in the hands of armed forces and intelligence officials.

"Anything that we fund, we feel very strongly it has applications in the war effort," said Mr. David, 36, a North Carolina native.

With oversight from the Defense Department and the State Department, the Technology Support Working Group has singled out about 110 ideas for high-tech projects from more than 14,500 plans it has received since October. The technology group will spend an estimated $75 million through 2005 to develop the projects.

The group sifted through ideas from private companies, colleges and universities, and researchers at federal labs. One proposal came from a man who conducted his research in a garage.

"We forwarded it on and said, 'You may want to consider this.' We're willing to fund any good ideas," said John Reingruber of the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Combating Terrorism.

While the Defense Department's special operations division and the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism have direct oversight, the technology group is made up of 80 federal agencies that help decide what is funded.

Since its formation in 1983, after bombings at the U.S. Embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, the Technology Support Working Group has funded projects to improve the bulletproof armor on the presidential limousine, screen vehicles for the presence of explosives and test for biological agents.

The group has helped develop high-tech equipment for the Defense Department, Secret Service, Naval Criminal Investigation Service and legions of other federal agencies. The U.S. Capitol Police uses bomb-detection equipment developed by the group.

The group turned its attention to combating terrorism in October when Michael Wynne, the Defense Department's principal undersecretary for acquisition and technology, asked it to search for new technology to help find terrorists and trace their activities, locate and attack terrorist facilities, conduct lengthy military operations in remote areas, and detect and destroy weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Wynne said any project the group funds must be ready for use in 18 months.

The Technology Support Working Group was flooded with proposals after Mr. Wynne's directive, receiving 12,500 proposals in just two months. In March, when it asked for more high-tech ideas, it got another 2,000 proposals. The group typically receives hundreds of plans for technology applications each year.

"We authorized a lot of overtime for a lot of people," said Mr. David, who was the technology group's only employee when he began working for it 10 years ago. The group has since grown to more than 40 employees.

The group operates secretly. Officials let few people know where they work, rarely give their phone numbers and rely on e-mail to communicate with the private sector.

They also refuse to give details about the projects on which they are working, partly for security reasons. Of the thousands of technology proposals received in October and March that they have decided to fund, Mr. David will talk about only one. The group has funded a project to detect whether someone detained by the federal government has used weapons of mass destruction.

"Imagine you have a detainee somewhere and you want to know if that person has been handling a weapon of mass destruction of some type. We want to be able to determine that," he said.

As the federal government's appetite for technology increased after September 11, Mr. David's interagency group lost the veil of privacy that let it operate with little attention. Its role in developing and funding technology to help the military also gained significance.

"We've always thought it was important. But since September 11 there have been some adjustments. What it's really done is expanded what people expect of us," Mr. David said. "I can't imagine anything we could ever fund will prevent any terrorist attack from ever happening again. We'll do our best to stop as many as we can."

In a June 24 report to Congress on the costs associated with combating terrorism, the Office of Management and Budget gave a brief but glowing review of the Technology Support Working Group. The OMB said the group "has proven extraordinarily effective for developing new technologies and equipment to counter terrorism."

Despite that favorable review, the technology group's funding may be cut. The Bush administration requested $42 million for the Technology Support Working Group in fiscal 2002, and its actual budget will reach $56 million with additional money from Congress. The administration requested $49 million for the group in fiscal 2003, which starts Oct. 1, and $38 million in fiscal 2004.

"Working with the Defense Department and other federal agencies, the Technology Support Working Group has gained an expertise that made them uniquely valuable in the wake of September 11. That is why I was both surprised and disappointed when the Defense Department proposed to cut the group's funding for next year," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat and a member of the Senate Armed Services emerging threats subcommittee.

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