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University of Fear 

How the Department of Homeland Security is becoming a big man on campus

Thursday, Apr 1 2004
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Illustration by Tra Selhtrow

Last September the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the first 100 recipients of its new collegiate financial-aid program. Grouped in the applied, social and behavioral sciences, the winners included 13 Californians. The undergraduate scholarships cover tuition and fees, along with a nine-month stipend of $9,000; graduate fellowships also cover tuition and fees, and come with a yearlong $27,600 living subsidy. All must be U.S. citizens and “indicate a willingness to accept, after graduation, competitive employment offers from DHS, state and local security offices, DHS-affiliated federal laboratories, or DHS-related university faculty or research staff positions.”

At the time no one knew of these new Homeland facilities — they didn’t exist. But last November DHS announced a $12 million, three-year grant to the University of Southern California to establish, under the school’s engineering department, the Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE). In April two new centers will open, concentrating on “agro-terrorism,” while other, long-established research facilities are falling under DHS control. And, in a little-publicized battle, a congressional bill championed by conservatives would require DHS or other “security” officers to be appointed to a new advisory board overseeing international studies and foreign-language programs receiving federal aid; it unanimously passed the House last October and is now steaming through the Senate.

The speed and scope of DHS’s financial-aid program, aimed at “harnessing the nation’s scientific knowledge to protect America and our way of life from terrorists and their weapons of mass destruction,” has been breathtaking — scholarship programs can require a year to get off the ground, but the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education cobbled it together in a matter of weeks, using a pre-existing model.

DHS’s growing sugar-daddy role on American campuses is but one way in which the year-old security agency, formed in the wake of 9/11, has begun to leave a deep boot print on academia. Primed with a $70 million scholarship and research budget, DHS represents the biggest intrusion into America’s intellectual life by security agencies since the height of the Cold War. However, while the CIA surreptitiously worked its magic in the 1950s to control, say, the National Student Association, Praeger Publishers or Encounter magazine, DHS’s influence is a broad-daylight affair.

 

Only the Manhattan Project or America’s space program can compare to the commitment of federal resources and political will that have been lavished on the Department of Homeland Security, an amoeba-like bureaucracy formed by fusing 22 formerly independent agencies. Homeland, with the third largest civilian work force of the 15 executive-Cabinet departments, employs 183,000 people (including 1,500 lawyers) and commands a nearly $40 billion budget. Yet while the Manhattan Project and NASA narrowly targeted two specific goals (the building of the atomic bomb and the exploration of space), the war on terror is so amorphous, its enemy so indeterminate and DHS’s technological goals so esoteric that the department’s mission could conceivably run till the end of time without any gauge of success. To even question Homeland’s effectiveness one has to disprove a negative because, the reasoning goes, if it’s not raining hijacked jets and snowing anthrax, DHS must be doing its job.

This makes Homeland a money magnet, one of the rare federal agencies for which Congress appropriates more funds than the president seeks. And, perhaps not surprisingly, most DHS directorate leaders without backgrounds in law enforcement, the military or CIA/FBI come from an array of iconic corporate and financial institutions including Coca-Cola, PG&E, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, Vivendi Universal S.A. and Corning Inc. Charles E. McQueary, who heads the Directorate of Science and Technology, is a former division president of defense contractor General Dynamics; Elizabeth Lautner, whom McQueary appointed to oversee the troubled Plum Island Animal Disease Center, is a former vice president of the National Pork Board. Furthermore, the security needs of such sector industries as oil, banking and real estate are catered to by DHS’s Information Sharing and Analysis Centers.

In one sense DHS is a 21st-century New Deal — a New Deal, that is, for the military-industrial complex. Technology —

especially surveillance and detection technology — is the name of the game at DHS, and so the largesse its Science and Technology Directorate has shown to college and university students is only fitting. Still, many jaws dropped when veteran research scientists first heard of DHS’s Scholars and Fellows awards.

“Twenty-seven thousand, six hundred dollars for a grad student is pretty darn good — that’s lucrative!” says David Wright, an MIT member of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “I’m amazed — usually you think of a program seeding about seven fellows or scholarships a year. But 100? We in the scientific community get frustrated when we hear of government departments like Homeland Security funding new programs that haven’t been fully developed.”

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