Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 13, 2006

Free the CRS, and bring back the OTA

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on November 13, 2006

For those who believe in transparent government and fact-driven legislation, the power shift in the U.S. Congress represents a unique opportunity to open up one important Congressional institution to the Internet and bring back another one twelve years after it was disbanded.

The Congressional Research Service publishes first-rate, succinctly-written analyses of policy issues, including hundreds of reports on homeland security issues over the last few years. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at the CRS website, which contains none of the entity’s content. This has been the situation with CRS reports dating back to the early days of the World Wide Web, largely at the behest of former House Administration Committee Chairman (and recently convicted felon) Bob Ney.

Congressional staffers are often willing to send out CRS reports to constituents, and as a result the reports eventually get out into the public domain, but sometimes after delays of weeks or months. I’ve made an effort to dig out every homeland security-related report I can over the past 7-8 months, as you can see here, and there are many other groups such as the Federation of American Scientists who have created excellent CRS report sites. But our yeoman’s work is a poor substitute for direct, real-time access to new CRS reports at the crs.gov site. The new Democratic leadership in the House and the Congress should set the CRS free on day one of the 110th Congress.

A second important Congressional institution, the Office of Technology Assessment, has faded into a distant memory over the past decade, but it once played a critical role in advising Congress to make sense of technology issues. It was disbanded following the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, a sacrificial pawn with a $20 million/year budget to the budget-cutting rhetoric of that election. But with the federal government today spending $135 billion/year on R&D today, the disbandment of OTA looks penny wise but pound foolish. It’s not possible to prove a counterfactual, but I’m confident that there would be a better-informed Congressional allocation of R&D funding and much less waste if the OTA still existed today.

In particular, the homeland security domain has deeply needed the OTA over the past five years. DHS has frequently struggled to articulate an R&D agenda for key mission requirements, and Congress has too often provided only surface-level oversight of the Department’s technology challenges.

Take the example of R&D on explosive detection systems for aviation security. After 9/11, Congress moved quickly to invest billions of dollars in new machines, and start R&D efforts for a next generation of technology. Those decisions were made, as best I can tell, without any long-run plan for how TSA would migrate from this first-generation of technology to the next-generation. This is exactly the kind of guidance that the OTA could have helped to provide upfront. In the absence of such strategic advice, the migration path to a new generation of technology continues to be informed too much by reactions to the news of the day (e.g. the UK plot and liquid explosives detection) and competing industry pressures, and not enough by a long-term strategy.

For this reason, and countless others, it would be an excellent investment to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment. It will undoubtedly take some time to bring it back to its prior level of competence, but it’s a project worth undertaking.

p.s. For those interested in the work of the OTA as it applies to homeland security, check out its excellent report from 1992 entitled “Technology against Terrorism: Structuring Security” which serves as a prescient guide to many of the challenges still facing DHS today.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

November 13, 2006 @ 11:18 am

Whether Republican or Democratic majority, Congress needs an OTA like organization. The R&D issues are just too complex. Earthquake issues alone justified OTA and their work was excellent. Katrina was only a CAT 3 Hurricane and failed man-made structures. Wait until the real BIG-ONE (a California Earthquake or New Madrid) or a WMD incident/event domestically and then we will really have knowledge of the equivalent of Liddell Hart’s theorm of the “Audit of War” or in this case the audit of natural disasters or man-made catastrophes. By the way there are extensive gaps in crisis planning and response by the largely exclusive focus on 15 scenarious under FPC-8. An immediate job would be to itemize the impact of structural failures for the 100 top population areas currently “protected” by man-made structures.

Comment by Robot Economist

November 13, 2006 @ 10:07 pm

Christian – If you want fresh CRS reports, let me know. I have access to their reports database through my university’s library webportal.

Let me know what you are looking for and I’ll see what I can dig up.

Comment by vangie thibideaux

November 14, 2006 @ 6:38 pm

the article points are very well taken. while access to crs reports via alternative routes was not the issue nor optimum solution, the following national council for science and the environment does well to make sure this information is publicly available. access on their site at


Comment by anon

November 17, 2006 @ 11:50 am

Sorry, but the NCS site is very limited. I just searched my name, and they have 5 reports total, only two of which are current and up-to-date. My active portfolio is about 8 reports, and, in total, even in just the past 5 years, would be closer to 15. They are missing my “biggest seller”.

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December 14, 2006 @ 4:49 pm

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December 25, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

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Pingback by In Other News | Secrecy News

November 4, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

[…] “For those who believe in transparent government and fact-driven legislation, the power shift in the U.S. Congress represents a unique opportunity to open up one important Congressional institution — the Congressional Research Service — and bring back another one — the Office of Technology Assessment — twelve years after it was disbanded,” suggests Christian Beckner in Homeland Security Watch. […]

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