Ten months following the catastrophic 9/11 attacks, nine scientists and one support staff left their homes, families, and jobs to relocate to Washington, DC. Tapped by the White House through the Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratories for their scientific talent, their task was to help create the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and stand up its Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) in the Transition Planning Office (TPO).
It was a monumental undertaking for those who moved boldly and decisively to accept the challenge, and we were lucky enough to catch up with four of these scientists just two weeks ago to reflect on what it was like to receive the call to serve in July of 2002.
During Public Service Recognition Week, they returned to S&T to be part of our Impact 20: Commemorating 20 Years of S&T event. They joined former Under Secretaries (who had a lot to say in our anniversary video!) and the S&T workforce to celebrate this milestone and share their unique experience as founding members during a panel session.
We were thrilled to host these architects of our directorate, including:
- Dr. Parney Albright, the group’s leader, former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security, who hailed from the White House and is credited for his role as architect of S&T. He was tasked by the White House to lead the planning for the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Directorate for the proposed department in July 2002, which soon evolved into S&T, and he conceptualized the policies and procedures for the new directorate.
- Dr. Michael Carter, a key participant who led the development of the nation’s domestic strategy to counter nuclear and radiological terrorism, was the first director of Radiological and Nuclear Countermeasures at S&T and served as deputy director of the DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office.
- Dr. Holly Dockery led the development of S&T’s technical standards program, implementing the department’s Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies, or SAFETY, Act responsibilities, establishing a first responder technology office and creating an organization for developing and executing international policy.
- Dr. John Vitko, S&T’s first director of Biological and Chemical Countermeasures, contributed significantly to the development and implementation of the first U.S. strategy to counter bioterrorism.
They painted the picture of our formative days at the department and S&T—the uncertainty after the attacks and unending dedication to mission. Drs. Carter and Vitko alluded to the deep concern at the time about the anthrax attacks that began a week following the 9/11 attacks and persisted for several weeks. Letters containing deadly anthrax spores were mailed to U.S. senators and the news media, killing five people and injuring 17 others, which triggered a massive FBI investigation.
They also spoke about the level of commitment and drive it took to meet their goal. Dr. Dockery shared that she initially agreed to a 60-day commitment with the TPO and ended up staying with S&T for over three years. And similarly, Dr. Albright shared that the TPO team was pressed to set up S&T by September 11, 2002, in time for the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, noting that the TPO delivered within three months what normally would have been a two-year planning, programming and budgeting process.
This team took on whatever task was required at the time to help get S&T on firm footing in key mission areas. And as Dr. Albright reflected, “As a result, we were super well equipped when set up,” which greatly pleased Congressional leadership. “The long hours paid off.”
Dr. Albright described his experience in helping to establish DHS and S&T as the most rewarding and enjoyable highlight of his career, a sentiment echoed by his fellow panelists.
The dedication to mission that was at the heart of what drove S&T’s founders, remains a strong motivator of the S&T workforce today. The results of the department’s annual survey of its federal employees indicate that the DHS mission continues to resonate deeply with the men and women of S&T, year after year.
I hope you’ll join us as we continue to celebrate 20 years—including honoring the collective contributions of S&T’s former Under Secretaries, who led the organization to help the nation gain and regain its footing in the face of a complex and ever-evolving threat landscape. The efforts of our former leaders and founding scientists have created a lasting foundation for the next generation of scientific leadership. You can learn more on our anniversary page.
Follow along on social media at @DHSSciTech to see our 20th Anniversary milestones, videos, and success stories.