Homeland Security Reps Criticized for Hawaii Trip

Al Qaeda is regrouping in northwest Pakistan. The FBI is worried about terror attacks during the fall election season. So how are senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security reacting to these potential threats? By going to Hawaii, of course.

In early October, around a dozen top Homeland officials, including the undersecretary for science, retired Admiral Jay M. Cohen, will be doing their part to protect the country by attending what they say is a critical trade show and convention—on Waikiki Beach.

Homeland officials have been criticized in the past for junkets like this one. So it's no surprise that dismay about the upcoming Honolulu excursion is already surfacing on Capitol Hill.

"Sadly, it comes as little surprise that Admiral Cohen is scattering taxpayer dollars on a boondoggle to Hawaii," Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, told NEWSWEEK. Dingell, who in the past has been sharply critical of Cohen's handling of other Homeland issues, added that the admiral's "time would be better spent fixing the mess he has created here ... Although, on reflection, perhaps we should be comforted that DHS could be run no worse when Cohen is out of town."

Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said Cohen had no comment on Dingell's remark. But she said there are important reasons why a delegation of officials must attend the sixth annual Asian-Pacific Homeland Security Summit, scheduled for Oct. 7-10 at the lush, oceanfront Sheraton Waikiki Resort. The conference, she said, will focus on how "basic research" being conducted by scientists around the world can be used to develop new technologies that might stave off terror attacks. A considerable amount of this research is being pursued in Pacific Rim countries like Singapore, Australia and Japan, she said. Having a conference in Hawaii (as opposed to, say, Nebraska) is an opportunity for Homeland officials to "interface" with the scientists actually doing the work. "We will use any technology we can find that makes America safer," Kudwa said.

Kudwa was quick to point out that the Homeland Security Department is not sponsoring the conference, which is being put on by the state of Hawaii. Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, head of the Hawaii State National Guard and one of the conference organizers, told NEWSWEEK that the state had been hosting similar conferences annually for the last five years and that he invited Homeland Security officials this time because of the event's focus on science and technology. He said that by attending the conference, foreign government officials can both visit U.S. military installations and meet U.S. Homeland Security officials, making the event a convenient place to make contact for foreign officials who often have dual responsibility for their government's domestic security and defense activities. Why Hawaii? Lee said that it was unlikely that anyone from the Pacific Rim would make the effort to attend "if this conference is held in Cleveland Ohio."

But that doesn't mean Hawaii is picking up the tab for the federal officials. U.S. taxpayer dollars will be used to buy the plane tickets, pay the hotel bills and cover the expenses for Cohen and his entourage. (Among those planning to accompany Cohen and listed as event speakers: Dr. Starnes Walker, the research director of Cohen's Science and Technology division, and Jamie Johnson, the Homeland Security Department's director of National Laboratories.)

Initially the Department said that as many as 20 officials would be traveling to the conference. But this week, after fielding inquiries from NEWSWEEK about the matter, Kudwa said the figure has now been reduced to somewhere between 10 and 15.

How much will all this cost the U.S. government? Kudwa said that because the number of Department officials attending is still in flux, an estimate for how much the government will be paying for the trip is not currently available.

We'll check back.

Major General Robert G. F. Lee, adjutant general for the state of Hawaii, responds:

August 20, 2008
Newsweek Editor:

The story, Homeland Security, Hawaii Style, posted on the Newsweek website August 13, 2008, trivializes an annual event whose purpose is to increase the safety and security of Asian and Pacific Nations, including the United States. Those of us involved with the Asia-Pacific Homeland Security Summit believe it has achieved that purpose.

During the past five years this summit has been a forum where government, military, business, industry, and education leaders from Pacific and Asian nations have shared information, techniques, and best practices on topics ranging from terrorism to natural disasters. The shared information has been used by nations and states in their own preparedness and response planning, including Hawaii.

Hawaii is more than a tourist attraction: it is a center for commerce, education, and research. And it is the home of the U.S. Pacific Military Command with an area of responsibility covering more than half of this planet and some 300,000 American men and women in uniform. This state is a natural gathering place for Asian and Pacific governments cooperating with the U.S. on national security issues.

The theme of the sixth annual Asia-Pacific Homeland Security Summit, scheduled for October 8 - 10 this year, is Scientific Research for Homeland Security. It is an extremely important topic and we believe representatives from Department of Homeland Security should attend. The value of what will be discussed and shared among participants is not diminished in the least just because the summit is held in Hawaii.
Major General Robert G.F. Lee
Adjutant General, Hawaii
Homeland Security Advisor