You’re a federal worker whose government is struggling to manage its overburdened checkbook. So what do you do? Head to Waikiki Beach in Honolulu for a paid trip to discuss future technologies for preventing terrorism with international partners?
That’s what 20 officials from the Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology division are doing this week at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $44,000. The delegation is led by Undersecretary Jay Cohen, who sported a beaded lei Wednesday as he opened the anti-terrorism conference hoping to assure attendees that the division is protecting the country, according to a live stream of the speech.
Mr. Cohen, a former Navy admiral whose division’s research and development spending and judgment have been criticized in Congress, told participants that Hawaii makes for “one-stop shopping” for homeland security technology and innovation, because it’s at the center of the Pacific Rim, home to technology companies and the site of military’s U.S. Pacific Command.
Homeland’s decision to proceed with the conference, even after it was first highlighted in a Newsweek magazine column two months ago, left the chairman of the powerful House Commerce and Energy Committee seeing a “boondoggle to Hawaii.” Rep. John D. Dingell‘s committee has questioned several of Mr. Cohen’s judgments, including the decision to close down the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York that was used to study infectious diseases that could jeopardize national security.
“His time would be better spent fixing the mess he has created here,” Mr. Dingell told The Washington Times in a statement Wednesday.
Homeland science and technology division spokesman John Verrico said the conference at the Sheraton Waikiki — where oceanfront rooms can run as high as $685 a night — is an important part of the agency’s work with international counterparts to develop new technology to fight terrorism. He said that the government workers got a discount rate for their rooms, and that the agency ended up choosing the conference in Hawaii over planning one itself in Singapore that could have cost up to $1 million.
“We are mandated to have a sharing relationship with our international partners, and this is probably the most cost-effective way to do it,” Mr. Verrico said.
But with the government forced to spend $700 billion to rescue the U.S. economy crisis, a spending watchdog said the agency should do more to justify sending workers to an obvious vacation hot spot, particularly one that boasts luxurious surroundings and temperatures that seldom venture far from 80 degrees.
“It could indeed be an important conference, but it’s also incumbent on the managers to demonstrate that everybody going truly needs to be there,” said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union and Foundation.
Homeland was created as a Cabinet agency in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and given billions of dollars to spend fortifying America against another terrorist attacks. But its spending practices have often been criticized by Congress and the agency’s internal watchdog.
“The DHS has had a great deal of teething pains with internal management practices during its infancy,” Mr. Dingell said. “They need to be much more careful in their adolescence not to present the image of spending recklessly.”
The 2008 Asia-Pacific Homeland Security Summit & Exposition, sponsored by the state of Hawaii, began Wednesday. Its goal is to develop solutions to public- and private-sector security threats in the Asia-Pacific region. About two dozen Pacific Rim countries had representatives at last year’s event.
The agenda includes sessions on foreign countries working together, research and technology updates, and security challenges each country faces. Mr. Verrico said Homeland Security employees will participate in panel discussions and speeches.
Congress directed DHS in last year’s “9/11 bill” to work with international allies on counterterrorism science and technology on research projects, joint ventures, conferences and training programs. DHS will be required to report back to Congress on its international cooperation - with allies such as Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Singapore - every five years.
To comply, the science and technology division meets at least annually at conferences or seminars with international counterparts, whether it plans one or it attends an already scheduled conference. Last year, the science and technology division participated in the International Security and National Resilience Conference in London with Eurasia science and technology counterparts.
“We will use any technology we can find to make America safer,” Mr. Verrico said. “We don’t care where it comes from, and we will cast a broad net to find it. Part of that seeking of technology is to build relationships with our international partners and participate in conferences like this where we can share ideas.”